Michael Cusack’s signature aesthetic is one of disciplined understatement. Through rehearsal and experiment his paintings have acquired a poise and latent tension that is the legacy of two influential phases of his life. The first of these was the Irish-born artist’s early life in Dublin, with its cultural mainstays of storytelling and music; the second, a particularly charged period in the 1990s, when he discovered ‘white’ and Minimalism and hence the work of artists such as Ben Nicholson, Robert Ryan, and Agnes Martin.
Poetry and a graphic impulse represent the cornerstone of Cusack’s practice. The poeticism is both formal and conceptual. His palette, for instance, is usually confined to nuance, with fine shifts in a pale tonal range. And his use of haloed shapes and vessels can be particularly poignant. They seem vulnerable, fragile, and become vehicles of mysterious promise, keepers of secrets and stories; no two the same.
His is a compulsive mark-maker, routinely drawing throughout the course of building ground. Graphite elements are sometimes buried, or become translucent motifs as they are filtered through the washes of overlaid paint. More often, they are an openly lyrical component of the surface of the work. The marks also act as narrative keys, like the snatches of history that a pedestrian might gather from pavements, doorways and walls. It is no accident that some of his paintings, both in the chalky quality of the finish and the seemingly random marks, recall urban details. He photographs these as reference. He will even use framing bands of contrasting colour and/or texture to accentuate a particularly sensitive area of the work and so render it path-like.
To contrast his grounds, he layers acrylic paint on the canvas, rubbing it back and refining the ground. He then applies a combination of enamel paint, crayon, colour or graphite pencil and makes subtle and expressive marks by scuffing, staining, scratching or simply dragging a brush; all the while coaxing out the desired light effects. He likes to keep al of it; to track, and not break faith with, the process.
Despite the use of colour and imagery being deliberately reductive, the textural range is complex. This has the effect of making the paintings seem both innocent and infinitely wise, both fresh and somehow ancient. It is as if we are seeing something for the first time that has always been there.
In his most recent work Cusack usually cuts through the picture plane to expose other prepared surfaces-sections of canvas, plaster or vintage linoleum. For him, each one is a beautiful and rich material, a reference to other times and other stories, and a moving study in absence.
Independent curator and arts writer
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Michael Cusack emigrated to Australia in 1982 and currently lives and works in Byron Bay, Australia. In 1997 he graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts from the Hunter Institute of Technology, New South Wales. His work is widely admired and features in several major public and corporate collections including Artbank; BHP Billiton; Macquarie Bank; and Newcastle Region Art Gallery in addition to various private collections in Australia, Hong Kong, United Kingdom and Ireland.