In his decades-spanning practice, Michael Dwyer has focused on making abstract paintings that place color front and center. His recent work deploys crisp-edged chunks of translucent color that meander, zigzag, or float through the composition. The paintings are improvisational structures that often reveal evidence of their evolution.
Born in Syracuse, NY, Dwyer holds a BFA from Syracuse University and an MFA from the University of South Carolina. His work has been exhibited in Syracuse, Providence, and various cities in South Carolina. Most recently, Dwyer's work comprised the solo exhibition Swing Set: Paintings by Michael Dwyer at The Goodall Gallery at Columbia College.
"Michael Dwyer does beautifully refined paintings that guide the viewer into an experiential exploration of color and texture. The overall composition is highly controlled with many details being spontaneous surprises."
- Philip Mullen
Both of my parents were artists and my father was a serious painter all of his adult life. Many of their friends and colleagues at Syracuse University were artists, architects, or writers and our home was always a place with big, modern paintings on the walls and jazz on the stereo.
As a kid, I loved visiting my dad's studio. I liked the spattered dishevelment, the smell of paint, and the paintings that I couldn't fully understand, but instinctively grasped, as the works came to life. I knew at an early age that making art was something I wanted to pursue.
A sense of movement has been an important element in my work for many years. Earlier pieces often conveyed a feeling of forms drifting in space. Then there was a shift toward using linear compositions to create direction. I wanted your eye to move along a variety of courses or circuits and have experiences along the way. I also found from my earlier collage work that I liked shapes in my paintings to have crisp, assertive edges, like those that came from using scissors.
Currently, I’m using a lot of masking tape and more often than not, painting with a palette knife instead of a brush. Ultimately, I’m always chasing that transcendent moment where color, shape, and movement come together in a way that‘s thrilling and right.
Essay by Catherine Walworth, Ph.D.
Painting is a visual language that speaks with its own rhythm, organizational syntax, and lyrical cadence. To look at Michael Dwyer’s paintings is to give yourself over to looking at colors and shapes and textures that exist playfully on the surface of a plane, yet in a seriously complicated way.
At first, one’s eye wants to track the upper layer of painted structures that bend and jerk like a conga line of conjoined dancers, and then you see how many layers and purposefully altered decisions went into the build-up of his paint below. Dwyer thinks of these strata as akin to the layering of instruments and the interweaving medley of sounds that happens over time in a piece of music.
Also like jazz, there is a tension between the sense of control and improvisation in Dwyer’s paintings. One can follow the jig across the painted surface, where bars of color bend and intersect, approach the limits of the painting’s edge only to stop short, or carry on into imagined elsewheres. Each bar is a different color, and in that bar are layers of past color choices, sometimes fighting to rise to the surface like a ghost, and other times anonymously adding layers of thickness to the final opaque color choice. This density and subtle quality of relief give the paintings an objectness, and asks the viewer to walk back and forth to take in little shadows, amplifying the sense of rhythm and movement.
Dwyer uses a palette knife to scrape and smooth paint, but also whatever is at hand. While he used to paint in a more organic, rounded, and gestural way with a brush, now he is a happy workman, troweling his bricks of color into built worlds. The paint layers in the background offer up clouds of color on which the hard-edged bars float in a colorful ether. As with Kazimir Malevich’s or Ellsworth Kelly’s geometric forms that hover on the painted surface, seeming to take a living breath, there is a sense of “being in the world” in Dwyer’s forms in space. They, too, feel as if they are hovering and jostling, announcing their impossible sentience.
Dwyer and I have at various times marveled over painting and how so many seemingly disparate parts could come together in a composition that teeters on the edge of falling apart during the making, only to have the artist stop when it seems inexplicably “right.” There is a resolution that cannot always be explained, particularly when there is no figurative subject matter to gauge, but the result is astounding, and each time the conditions of a painting’s “rightness” are excitingly different.
But then, Dwyer has been trained from childhood to recognize the fitness of compositions. His parents, both painters, raised him in a home in which modernism was the thing, and took him to museums as a natural practice. His paintings speak directly to so many of the artists’ styles that he has absorbed by faithful looking— Paul Klee, Brice Marden, Piet Mondrian, Elizabeth Murray, and Frank Stella, to name a few. Stuart Davis is close to home at this stage in Dwyer’s career. Like Davis who pronounced his direct connection with jazz, Dwyer comes back again and again to his love of music when describing his process, as well as his evangelical adherence to abstraction. This exhibition’s title, “Swing Set,” is an homage to Davis, as well as a reference to music and play. Because above all, paintings should be thrilling to make and see.