Natural Philosophy: Michael McHugh Transforms Unique DNA-inspired Structures in New Collection

By Cara Pemberton

'Pollinators' (2023), Acrylic on Canvas
'Pollinators' (2023), Acrylic on Canvas
In the pursuit of new organic structures and forms through creative research, artist Michael McHugh has turned his art studio into a living laboratory, where, with daily drawing and experiments with different paint techniques and materials, he has created his very own DNA structures and forms.

Michael McHugh’s research saw him visit a range of local and international libraries and art museums and unlocking information and historical data, discovering plant forms that are now extinct while other varieties held a nucleus of a DNA structure found centuries ago. This gave McHugh a new viewpoint that was then introduced into his world and studio which soon became part of his future forms and structures.

For McHugh, early observations in the field across a range of differing landscapes and flora and fauna were collected and then dissected in the studio, bringing to life a fresh sequencing of shape and form with newly created organic DNA. In isolating patterns and shapes and creating a new set of nature-based processes by exploring the original natural form, he created his own universe by both looking back historically and looking very much forward to the future. 

This very personal creative research is inspired at times from childhood memories and moments within nature throughout his life. The reflection of a certain moment in time or an emotion he held when seeing a certain plant form or colour within nature, was often the starting point – laying bare his intimate relationship with the natural world.

‘Kerry Court’ Acrylic on Canvas

Creating a new world

By looking back he felt he could look forward with a certain ease and let his imagination run riot as the potential of a universe that came together through texture, pattern, cellular micro and macro detailing and bright, punchy colour. For McHugh this distilling of emotion and feeling through past experiences within nature and historical inquiry brings together a new body of work that not only reflects the creative research that has gone before but offers a new world that celebrates the potential of the future. 

McHugh sees the viewer as part of the experience: “The viewer has the final say. They bring their own feelings and emotions through their own personal circumstances when viewing each painting. They will see things I don’t, the colour and new forms will promote a different emotion than perhaps what I may have felt while painting.”   

‘Red Zone’, Acrylic on Canvas.

Nature at its heart

Underlining this body of work is the artist’s passion for the environment. He believes we all have a part to play in protecting and restoring nature when and where possible. Natural Philosophy is the celebration and love of nature and of wisdom and being part of a world that represents the potential of new thinking. In creating his own botanical language, McHugh has reinterpreted unique forms, having spent much time in the natural world.

“At times in my life returning to the natural world and having that deep connection has heightened my senses within that moment of time, but mostly it has often calmed my busy mind.”

‘Upclose & Personal’, Acrylic on Canvas.

This work lays bare the idea of Natural Philosophy and explores ways in which the artist hopes to understand natural processes by exploring the nature of truth through an aesthetic and a philosophical approach more commonly associated with scientific inquiry.

Philosophy of nature was an early mode of inquiry distinct from modern scientific method as it was based on observation of the physical universe to make logical conclusions.

From sadness to solace

The collection of work within Natural Philosophy started taking shape with multiple drawings and painting experiments in 2022. At the beginning of this year McHugh experienced bereavement with the loss of his sister and father-in-law dying within a month of each other. “Their passing pushed me further to the natural world, where I found solace and peace, and the heaviness of grief made me retreat into my studio further, losing myself in my own thoughts and work. The feel of grass under my feet, sun on my face and losing myself just staring into the canopy of trees or the sky itself bought a solace for a few moments,” he said.

‘Perennial’, Acrylic on Canvas

“When someone dies who you have loved all your life, you can’t help but lose yourself and include that emotion into the work,” says McHugh. “There has been much sadness and despair returning to the studio each day, with an almost emptiness that at times I just couldn’t shake.” Slowly McHugh started to paint. “It was the colour I painted with and the new shapes and forms that somehow refreshed my thinking and pushed me to continue painting.”

There is a life cycle and philosophy in nature that is ingrained in us all. The constant pull and push of modern living and expectation however somehow at times makes us forget about the power and strength of nature and how truly beneficial it is for us all. This exhibition more than anything is a celebration of colour, of life itself, a new world that celebrates the potential of the future, while also celebrating the past and, more than anything, remembering the good times.

Natural Philosophy

Milford Galleries, Queenstown

From October 20, 2023


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