You can blame the bright hot yellows and oranges in some of Michael McGuire’s more recent works at least in part on a flight snafu. He was supposed to travel to Mexico, as he did for 25 winters, when one year the airline overbooked and told him that if he delayed his trip for a day, they would give him a free roundtrip ticket to anywhere in the world he wanted.
“I chose Paris,” he says, “because I wanted to get down to Arles and see where Van Gogh painted.” Thus began an annual retreat to the sun-drenched landscape covered by the late great Impressionist. Every year, McGuire trades one of his paintings for lodging in a house that dates to the 1300s.
Truth be told, he has been liberal with colors from the warm end of the spectrum since before his European painting retreats, no doubt inspired by his time spent in Mexico. Many of his landscapes look in fact like Cape Cod if the Cape were somehow a part of the desert Southwest, with settings made fiery by the sun. The sky figures big in many of them, too, as it does when you travel west. Probably not coincidentally, he sells a lot of his work to people who live in Arizona and California.
There’s almost a Gauguin-like feel to a number of his paintings. Call it kismet. Gaugin, too, spent time in Arles and even lived with and painted alongside Van Gogh for a couple of months.
Looking around McGuire’s Provincetown gallery, gazing at and listening to the gently lapping waters of Cape Cod Bay, one notices that the vivid colors in his works often have a phosphorescent quality, a particular glow and intensity. The effect is the result of his priming all his canvases with black paint. “I’ve tried different colors,” he says, “but with black, the blues and the sand colors that I use jump out a little more.” The blues in particular are prone to take on an other-worldly quality—blue for sure but in an almost surreal iteration. A lot of times, he adds, the black you see around some of the imagery is actually the underpainting.
But for all of that, what has morphed more than McGuire’s colors are his lines. “They’ve gotten softer,” he says, “less graphic. I used to have very harsh lines in a lot of the older paintings.” But softer is “just the way things look” in Arles, he comments.
Many of the works are quite large. “I like painting big,” he says. “I really like to be able to move my arm and walk around more.” He has started to create some small vignettes at the urging of his son, painter Colin McGuire (see “Emerging Artists,” page 99), but they’re more of a conscious decision. Smaller is not his intuitive go-to.
That said, McGuire has comfortably let his subject matter itself evolve over the years. “When I first started I used to paint abstract figures,” he says. “But there was a fellow here named Romanos Rizk—a fantastic painter and a big influence on the way I think about going about my work. He did landscapes, figures, still lives, and because of him it has always been in my head that it doesn’t have to be the same. I hardly ever do figures anymore.”
He aspires to the mutability of the works of Frank Stella. “He just got better and better as he got older instead of rehashing the same thing,” McGuire says.
Art aficionados appear to be on board with McGuire’s shifts. He has exhibited on Nantucket as well as in New York, the Hamptons, Palm Desert, Puerto Rico, and other locales, and his work is included in private collections across North America and Europe. Whatever the changes, he’s getting them right.