Miami-based Michael Clifford on His Wild, Varied Inspirations

Carving initials into a tree, writing your name in freshly poured cement, scrawling messages on bathroom walls—it was this kind of childhood memory that inspired Michael Clifford to create his nostalgic, whimsical paintings. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clifford is now artist-in-residence at Mana Contemporary in Wynwood. His practice is characterized by unusual materials, from smoke bombs to paper towels, and the repetition of familiar symbols such as flowers and musical notes.

Last year’s “Playing Hands” marked his first solo exhibition at Gallery Diet in Miami. Clifford also contributed several new works to “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” the gallery’s current group show. We caught up with Clifford to hear about his fondness for ephemeral material, the creative potential in personal disappointment, and the significance of symbols in his paintings.

Artsy: Your paintings, though abstract, contain several recognizable symbols, including flowers, leaves, musical notes, and human faces. What is their significance?

Michael Clifford: Many of the symbols and imagery used are universally understood and immediately recognizable. The idea of incorporating this sort of imagery initially derived from drawing on wet cement, carving a lover’s name into a tree, or reading the absurdity marked on bathroom stalls. In terms of using imagery that is weighted, the obsessive use of repetition and juxtaposition of these symbols nullifies their meaning so that they simply become gestures. Thus, there is no significance—or rather, the significance is in their relationship to one another.

Artsy: Some of your recent paintings were created on paper towels. Others you made by applying the paint directly to a canvas with your hands. Do these choices represent nostalgia for the past, a reversion to childhood?

MC: Well, there is always a notion of “play” in the work that I suppose one could relate to childhood. The emotional candor of my work may involve nostalgia, lost love, mistakes, successes, etc. These choices are my reveling in serendipity through making.

Artsy: Your techniques and materials are often unconventional. What’s behind your decision to paint with, say, smoke bombs?

MC: I don’t necessarily see my techniques as unconventional. My decision to paint with smoke bombs has more to do with my fascination in the ephemeral quality, the immediacy, and the potency of the pigments.

Artsy: You’re artist-in-residence at Mana Contemporary in Wynwood. What are you currently working on?

MC: I am currently working on a series of paintings and sculptures that will be shown at Courtney Blades Gallery in Chicago.


—Bridget Gleeson


Follow Gallery Diet on Artsy.

Share article