The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

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MAY 2023 Issue

Michael Madrigali: Big City Nights

Michael Madrigali, <em>From the Expressway (Weird World 176)</em>, 2022. Acrylic, aqua crayon and laminated print on canvas, 16 x 12 inches. Courtesy MICKEY, Chicago.
Michael Madrigali, From the Expressway (Weird World 176), 2022. Acrylic, aqua crayon and laminated print on canvas, 16 x 12 inches. Courtesy MICKEY, Chicago.
On View
Big City Nights
April 7–June 25, 2023

The human body only serves as a logical tool for measurement until it catches sight of itself.

By toying with scale within his works, Michael Madrigali pokes holes in familiar strategies of measurement and organization, from the urban landscape to the personal archive, topiaries to semaphores, thus animating his paintings and sculptures with a peculiar self-awareness that never quite gives way to nihilism.

Big City Nights, an exhibition of works spanning the gallery's two rooms and marking Madrigali’s third exhibition with MICKEY, unfolds as a series of spatial abstractions. In the center of the first room glows a large platform hosting a colorful crowd of miniature objects resembling a cityscape, lit in bright white from above as though the structures were toy models populating the giant desk of a futuristic city planner. The simplified buildings themselves sprawl from the tallest structures at the center, ranging bright red to pastel purple, a few with images of topiaries or ancient architecture plastered to the sides, and each constructed from some combination of cardboard, wood, fiberglass cloth, and plaster. The neighboring room, meanwhile, offers four modestly-scaled paintings, each doubling and enlarging a small photograph adhered to the center of canvas. Each snapshot in some way suggests the presence of motion or speed within an urban environment.

Installation view: <em>Michael Madrigali: Big City Nights</em>, MICKEY, Chicago, 2023. Courtesy MICKEY.
Installation view: Michael Madrigali: Big City Nights, MICKEY, Chicago, 2023. Courtesy MICKEY.

The first level of abstraction occurs in their relation. While it would seem natural for the arrangements in each room to occupy their own spaces and chronologies—and to a large extent, they do—the membrane between each of Madrigali’s worlds remains porous. Tiny collaged and colored paper squares resembling a red string of tail lights in one of the four “Weird World” paintings (all 2022) become the windows of a simplified skyscraper in Big City Nights (2023), the eponymous set of city-like miniatures. Madrigali also introduces a temporal simultaneity between series by transforming the vocabulary of work previously exhibited at MICKEY, though not currently on view: red and yellow cut-paper patterns resembling semaphore flags from the world of Madrigali’s Star Paintings (2018) strangely emerge on the sides of the miniature buildings in Big City Nights. Eyes reappear, this time keeping watch over the static, luminous city. Within the “Weird World” paintings, the artist substantiates photographic streaks of light by collaging them as cut paper shapes that have captured the recorded, wobbly light of a nighttime skyscraper in a set of decidedly solid stripes. Once concretized in this way, this materialization forms a common language, allowing these patterned motifs to serve as a portal into the other worlds.

Further, this formal permeability makes way for a perceptual maneuver between works, at this point drawing more directly upon the dubious reliability of the viewer's perception of scale with relationship to their own body. The arrangement of miniature buildings registers as a form of shadowless tableau, with the individual objects made available only to the viewer's eye and in their entirety, due both to their small size and inaccessible interiors. The arm’s-length distance from the edge of the platform to the small city’s outermost boundary reinforces this impression. Known only visually, the stillness and small scale of the city sculptures mimics that of the roughly two-by-three-inch photographs collaged into the center of each of the four “Weird World” paintings, snapshots that Madrigali then expands outward toward the corners of the canvases, translated at this point back through the artist’s own visual vocabulary via repeating gestures exemplified by the aforementioned formal motifs.

Lastly, the fragmented organization of the cities in both the Big City Nights installation and the “Weird World” paintings distances the viewer from any sense of direct experience and is underscored by the absence of several familiar components of civic structure. First and foremost, the worlds lack agents—citizens. All four snapshots in Weird World exhibit a blurring of motion, but whose? The airplane in Night Jet (Weird World 181) exists as a silhouette; any cars lack drivers. The streets of Big City Nights are empty: whom or what has turned on the lights? Likewise, this object-city has no discernable infrastructure—no bridges, powerlines, streetlights, roads. Lacking recognizable logic, even the quality of light seems suspicious, making possible one of the strangest thought experiments provoked by the work as a whole: Blue-hued buildings appear most numerous on one end of the Big City. Could this be a sunless sunset creeping below a uniform glowing light in a city abiding by another rubric?

Regardless of the answer, the worlds developed across three exhibitions share a vocabulary with one more: this one—Earth in 2023—and this membrane remains no less permeable. In the original, subdued world of Night Kite, Madrigali's first exhibition with MICKEY in 2018, the paintings and sculptures referenced a world in which everything that ever existed—civilizations, internet trends, world events, loved ones—floated on a kite in the night sky. The remarkable scale shifts present in Madrigali’s work impart upon the viewer an experience here in Earth World reminiscent of what critic Susan Stewart called the “daydream of the microscope,” an evocation of the promise of hidden worlds within worlds, significance within significance. Embracing disquiet, Madrigali never seems to give in to the cynicism that for many lurks in the abstract recognition of this weird world reflected back at them, slightly misaligned.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2023

All Issues