World of Exotics

By Gill Canning

Photography by Jenni Carter
Photography by Jenni Carter
Artist Michael McHugh has taken centuries-old botanicals and added his own fertile imagination interwoven with generous bursts of brilliant colours to produce an original new show.

Walking into Michael McHugh’s art studio is like walking into a riot of colour. Exotics, his first solo show for Martin Browne Contemporary art gallery in Sydney, is a celebration of plant forms – some that no longer exist and others that may hold a nucleus from DNA found centuries ago. The shapes are highly manipulated in bursts of colour, inviting the viewer to take part in this kaleidoscope where they can decide themselves if these plants actually do exist or are part of his imagination.

Research began at the oldest botanical research library in Australia, the Daniel Solander Library at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, says McHugh. “The Botanic Garden was a good starting point, but it was when I was in London and continued researching at the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library, where they hold unique collections of early printed books about botanical art archives from heritage collections, that things started to gel.”

Hoopla, Michael McHugh (2020)

One of the many realisations that emerged from that research trip was that the early European artists and botanists onboard the HMS Endeavour to the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, who had produced an immense amount of botanical drawings, had actually perished on the voyage back to Britain. “It was Sydney Parkinson, the last remaining artist, who did most of the drawings from daily finds of botanical plant forms from across the region,” says McHugh. “Upon returning to London, the ship’s botanist Joseph Banks gave Parkinson’s drawings to over 20 artists to reimagine Parkinson’s work. What became clear was each artist had their own view point and so the original drawings and notes were often misinterpreted. The reinterpreted drawings are what we now recognise as the botanical findings from that journey as they discovered a ‘new world’ of flora and fauna.”

Gala, Michael McHugh (2020)
Cluster, Michael McHugh (2020)

The idea of the reinterpretation of plant forms from original source drawings stuck with McHugh and so researching often extinct and rare plants from across the globe was his starting point. “I was fascinated by the extraordinary and varied interpretations different botanists had made of plant species – this gave me licence to create my own botanical language.”

McHugh’s art has consistently explored colour, composition and textural abstract form with a strong connection to the natural world. With this work, his imagination has run riot in reworking the plant DNA he had seen in the botanical libraries. “By clashing plant form shapes that perhaps didn’t belong together, and then with the introduction of colour, a new DNA of plant forms emerged.” He found that regular botanical motifs kept appearing in the paintings. “I gave some of the shapes names; there’s ‘The Grace’, ‘The Chandelier’ and ‘Spinning DNA’. They 3 almost sound like characters from The Masked Singer but in McHugh’s highly 8 exotic world, they seamlessly integrate into a spectacle of rich, layered work.

Jitterbug, Michael McHugh (2020)
Jitterbug, Michael McHugh (2020)

McHugh’s world of Exotics makes no apology for indistinct botanical references. Constant drawing and collaging is fundamental to his painting process. This foundation enables him to explore composition and vigorously push boundaries with colour and technique. Patterns between the macro and micro detail of plant forms come together, welcoming viewers into a glorious new world of exotic plant forms.

Martin Browne Contemporary

17 September–11 October, 2020

Many of us enjoy looking at beautiful artworks but did you know that creating your own art has many physical and mental-health benefits? Read more about it here.


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