Michael McGregor’s Moveable Feast
It’s raining in Sicily. From the narrow balcony of a rental flat in Ortigia, a summer downpour rushes through the cobblestones, slapping against car bonnets and drenching tourists who, like us, ‘packed for June.’ “What the fuck, man,” says Michael McGregor, craning his neck briefly out of the window, before returning to the sanctuary of the dining room. Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ blasts out of an old cassette player.
“I haven’t been painting too much here,” he says, laying out stacks of work on the polished wood of the kitchen table, 60 drawings - mostly in colour pencil - from the last couple of months, finished inside of friend’s apartments, hotel rooms and on outdoor tables in cafes and bars.
There’s the artist, a self-portrait, reclining in dark sunglasses and a tweed blazer on his friend Bruno’s balcony, a cigarette dangling from his lips. A pink Porsche, and a red Saab 900 Turbo. Paddington Bear etched on headed paper from the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair; a crocodile; the clock from inside Bar Italia in Soho, and a Sicilian Moorish head. Colourful, chaotic and, as with all of his work, beautifully observed.
Frank tries a high note and McGregor gazes out of the window.
It wasn’t that long ago when Michael McGregor was stuck in a New York Office, wondering, as many people wonder, whether there was a way out of the rat race. Growing up, he’d been an avid painter and doodler, sometimes sketching well into the night inside of his childhood bedroom. But life happens. “I never thought about ‘being an artist,’ or making visual art in my adult life,” he said in an interview with itsnicethat. “Those things felt really foreign and frankly impossible to me as a teenager in New Jersey.”
At the age of 32, encouraged by his then-girlfriend, he started to draw again. He moved to Mexico City for a couple of years without much of a plan, and then LA. He began to apply oil sticks, pastels and coloured pencils to large canvases and hotel stationary. Vibrant still lifes, friend’s bathrooms and bunches of flowers, the remnants of long and occasionally hedonistic dinner parties. “I prescribe to the Hockney philosophy of painting — I paint what I like, when I like and where I like, he’s said. “Some might think [my paintings] are unfinished, but I think of them as ‘al dente.’”
“I only started properly in 2015, so it’s cool to realise that you can do something new in your thirties… to change your life completely.”
“Michael's work is so effortless and chic, it's hard to not love and be instantly transported into his painted world,” says Dasha Matsuura, the director of Hashimoto Contemporary in LA, who has worked with him for years. “I always look forward to studio visits, but I particularly love getting to go to Michael's. We look at the latest paintings, vignettes he has set up, ideas he's ruminating on, the dogs play in the yard, we smoke a cigarette on the patio and talk about art. It feels very natural and unhurried, much like his work.”
The first time we met McGregor was in the French House in Soho, a few text messages, a loose time agreement, a dim autumnal corner of the pub and several bottles of Breton cider. Various friends, acquaintances and strangers were pulled into his orbit over the course of a long evening. He’s a fun person to be around — a good time omnipresent. There have been dinners, games of pool, late-night karaoke sessions, conversations about a bit of everything, and exhibitions in our shops in London and New York.
Over the course of several days in Sicily, we drink wine from Mount Etna on wobbly tables, drive around, listen to the classics, smoke outside of bars cut into rock that look like they might crumble at a moment’s notice, or stand for another thousand years. We order more than one Americano in a piazza after the rain subsides, and pile into seafood restaurants. It all seems so simple: live it and paint it; paint it and live it. We’ve come up with a verb — to be McGregored. To be pulled into that orbit.
“Enjoying life feels like a necessity— you just have to open your eyes a little and rediscover the wonder when the bigger things feel too big,” he says. “When I’m working, I’m working. But it’s always a balance. Extended travel and time out usually makes me excited to get back in the studio and create new work.”
“I’d rather be loose and free,” he adds, “but I do a lot of research, and I’m constantly collecting and sorting visual references — from my travels, from art history, from reading, from the radio. I sort loads of imagery and tend to always work from a photo, or a memory. These things evolve when being worked on, but generally they always come from life, from the universe, or from history.”
“It’s all one big mash up.”
During the spring and summer of last year, McGregor spent a lot of time in Greece, a few months on an island in the Ionian Sea, Athens, and elsewhere. He drew what he saw — tzatziki in Corfu, beach umbrellas, a tea cup in Paros, a chair, a door. “I think of them as ‘point and click’ photos, he says, “snapshots taken on travels, and I wanted them to have that sort of immediate, ephemeral quality. Together they tell a meandering story.”
That meandering story was recently turned into his first book, titled, simply, The Greece Notebook, which was published by Hyper Hypo in Athens. “The idea that he was making these fast, vibrant drawings, in lieu of using a camera, really spoke to us,” says Andreas Kokkino, co-founder of the publisher and book shop. “We love his focus on the mundane, if you will, and not on flashy landscapes or ancient ruins.”
In the rental apartment, the one he’s sharing with his friend Hyuna, who’s visiting from Seoul, with terrazzo floors, bay windows and that view of the street below, we leaf through the first draft of another upcoming project: Eurostar, comprised of observations from London and Paris, and Aperitivo, a boozy book drawn up during his stay in Sicily. He’s off to Athens soon for the launch of The Greece Notebook, then maybe back to Paris.
“There are few times where you see someone's work and you meet them and the person and the paintings are so in sync,” says Matsuura from Hashimoto. “I often describe Michael and his work as a Tuesday afternoon on a yacht in the south of France, drinking champagne and eating oysters, wearing linen with a breeze fluttering by. His work really transports you to that feeling of relaxation.
"Ease with a touch of indulgence.”