Magical Realism

Editor’s Note: Deborah Morrissey-McGoff’s new paintings are included in a group show at The Miller Gallery in Hyde Park titled “Local Artists”.  Aeqai is thus reprinting a feature that Editor Daniel Brown wrote for The Artist’s Magazine on Morrissey-McGoff’s paintings .  –  September 2010

Influenced by Italian Renaissance masters and naïve painters, Deborah Morrissey-McGoff paints imagined worlds in the most traditional of ways.

Deborah Morrissey-McGoff’s paintings are mesmerizing.  As if we viewers were in a trance, a landscape will seem to open to a book-lined room, as if a hill were cut away. at times the pictures seem like rebus rhymes in which objects, shells or boats, for example, take the place of words. We could also say they read like pages of an illuminated manuscript—Les tres riches heures du Duc de Berry comes to mind, as does The Book of Kells—whose story is combined with the artist’s interpretations of fairy tales and creation stories. The pictures’ rich references to art and literary history make each one a kind of puzzle, showing the artist’s intimate knowledge and stylish inte- gration of influences from the past.

McGoff offers us sanctuaries, like this comfortable study within the hill, along the paths and streams emblematic of life’s journey. In Twilight Thoughts (oil, 48 x30) the robin, the shells, the nasturtium and the orchid are symbols of spiritual growth and transformation.

As painterly surfaces, they are, in her words, “jewellike,” an effect she achieves by painting countless thin layers of oil on birch panels prepared with traditional gesso, which contains marble dust and results in a surface less smooth than one resulting from acrylic gesso. McGoff distresses the surface even more. on top of the traditional gesso and between layers of oil paint, she rubs the surface in a circular motion with fine sandpaper. she next prepares what she calls a dirty glaze (Liquin, plus brown and purple mixed together) that she rubs into the surface, “lightly pulling out the glaze so it goes into the pockmarks left by the gesso.”

McGoff offers us sanctuaries, like this comfortable study within the hill, along the paths and streams emblematic of life’s journey. In Twilight Thoughts (oil, 48 x30) the robin, the shells, the nasturtium and the orchid are symbols of spiri- tual growth and transformation.


Merging Genres

McGoff is primarily a landscape painter, but her new paintings combine elements from the still life genre. The paintings imply a journey through the landscapes; some contain

“My favorites were Italian Renaissance artists who painted on wood.  I ended up married to a contractor; there’s wood everywhere! It was synchronicity.”  ~ Deborah Morrisey-McGoff

A shrinelike sanctuary—a book-lined study, closed garden or medieval bed—often based upon italian renaissance paintings, as is the case with Dreaming Carpaccio (below). The sanctuaries become resting spots for the artist and viewer/traveler, as in a chinese landscape where the seeker goes up a mountain in order to retreat from urban or political strife in favor of a life of painting and study.

The artist herself calls these retreats “portals.” by providing a series of high-angle perspectives, she further implies that the city in the far distance is not necessarily the goal to be sought or attained. The languorous journeys implied by the oft-appearing river may lead instead to these inner shelters, as in A Bowl of Cherries (see an interpretation of A Bowl of Cherries).  Newest are paintings with selected objects from daily life, juxtaposing the outdoor with the indoor, nature with nurture. a basket, a vase with or without flowers, birds, rabbits, seashells and fruits that have symbolic reso- nance function at the same time as composi- tional signposts, creating a path for the viewer’s eye, moving from foreground to middle ground to background.

Dreaming Carpaccio (oil, 42×42) refers to Vittore Carpaccio’s series of paintings of the Ursula story. See Dream of St. Ursula (www.wga. hu/html/c/carpacci/ 1ursula/2/50dream. html). McGoff depicts the bed, but the sleeping Ursula is missing. Perhaps she woke and wandered into Venice, identified by the Piazza San Marco in the background.


Traditional Craft

Although she has a bachelor of fine arts degree in drawing, McGoff is self-taught as a painter. “I started out breaking all the rules as I fumbled around,” she explains. “My favorites were Italian renaissance artists who painted on wood. My husband is a contractor; there’s wood everywhere! it was synchronicity; the light bulb went off. I decided to emulate the italian painters I loved and work on wood.”



In Equipoise (oil on wood, 30×14), an orchid assumes center stage against the backdrop of a winding river, a configuration that recurs in McGoff’s work. In the foreground, note the incongruous and emblematic seashells that indicate this landscape is imaginary.
Study for EquipoIse (charcoal on paper, 30×14)

Cooking Up True Gesso

DeBorah Morrissey-MCGoff

True gesso grounds should only be applied to rigid supports. McGoff paints on birch panels braced with redwood.

1. To one quart water, add 21⁄2 ounces hide glue (rabbitskin glue or canvas glue sizing). Let this mixture dissolve overnight.

2. In a double boiler, slowly heat the glue mixture to a moderate temperature. Do not boil.

3. With a wide brush apply this mixture to the sides of the panel you will paint on. Let it dry overnight.

4. Repeat the above formula. While the mixture is warm, slowly add 2 pounds whiting (powdered marble), continually stirring gently to avoid air bubbles.

5. Still stirring, add approximately 1⁄3 cup zinc or titanium powdered pigment. The final mixture should be the consis- tency of melted ice cream.

6. Using the palm of your hand, apply the first coat to the wood panel. With the heel of your hand, push the gesso into the grooves of the surface (the wood’s grain).

7. When the first coat is thoroughly dry, apply a second coat with a soft, wide brush. (I apply five coats in all. Each coat is applied in the opposite direction from the previous coat.) Apply coats gently to avoid brush marks.

8. Let the panel dry overnight.

9. To prepare the panel for paint, first sand the surface with fine sandpaper. If there are any drips on the sides of the panel, sand those down. You may also do a “wet” sand by dipping your hand in water and rubbing the surface in a circular motion, which will dissolve the gesso enough so you can move it around and make the surface smoother. Let the panel dry completely.

10. Brush a mixture of one part white shellac and two parts denatured alcohol generously on the panel to seal the surface. Wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. (Note: White (clear) shellac has a shelf life of approximately one year. To test its viability, put a small amount on your fingertip and rub. It should feel smooth, not grainy.

From daily life, juxtaposing the outdoor with the indoor, nature with nurture. a basket, a vase with or without flowers, birds, rabbits, seashells and fruits that have symbolic resonance function at the same time as compositional signposts, creating a path for the viewer’s eye, moving from foreground to middle ground to background.


An Interpretation of A Bowl of Cherries

Spring Memory (oil, 28×27)
Collection of the Elliston Poetry Room, University of Cincinnati

McGoff invites us to create narratives for which she leaves plenty of clues. The sanctuary or shelter that appears in A Bowl of Cherries (at left; oil, 48×36) allows the artist another homage to art history, with the landscape/window in the rear of the room, a common trope in European portraiture. These paintings within paintings, with their multiple perspectives that are often tiered, as in Surrealism, are a tour de force and yet have the immediacy of rebus rhymes.

We could almost expect Botticelli’s Venus to appear out of the water in this idyll, to walk up the stairs into this secret room—a painter’s studio is implied, as is the idea of a hideaway surrounded by art’s beauty, an utopia within an Eden. Layering her ideas thus, the artist combines aesthetics and religious metaphysics, and then inserts a still life, the welcoming bowl of cherries. The shift in perspective from the stairs to the black-and-white marbled floor is a classic McGoff motif, keeping the perspectives slightly off balance.

The ogee arch of the mirrorlike room is superimposed upon a square of grass, surrounded by a brick wall, within which might be a cultivated garden. The closed garden is both a visual and a literary symbol. She is tending her garden as did Henry David Thoreau, as well as the Chinese painter-poets of the T’ang, Song and Yuan dynasties. In A Bowl of Cherries, the artist looks outward to the far distance (the unattainable?), suggesting that we linger awhile in either the sanctuary or in the garden.


Most painters today use acrylic gesso, but McGoff prefers the original recipe. “The gesso coating is like a plaster wall with pockmarks caused by air bubbles,” she says. “Making and applying the gesso is an all-day process with a lot of variables. it’s necessary to heat the gesso to a moderate temperature and apply it indoors in a controlled, temperate environment.  You get better at the process by just doing it. It’s like golf.  You just have to do it over and over again!” (see cooking Up True Gesso).

Then McGoff seals the plaster with a mixture of shellac and denatured alcohol. “If I didn’t seal the gesso, it would dissolve if it came into contact with water,” she explains. The final stage of her preparation is to apply an undercoat of ochre and cadmium red mixed together; she calls this warm underpainting her base color.


Playing with scale

The architectural elements frequently depicted within her paintings usually pay homage to the masters of the Venetian high renaissance, but because of her clever uses of fantastical spaces and high-angle perspectives, the paintings exude more of the freshness and vigor of early florentine renaissance painters, such as Giotto and Duccio. The blocky depiction reminiscent of Giotto’s forms gives McGoff her tendency toward totemic shifts in scale. Thus, an orchid will be tall, and a boat, miniscule; an arch will be all-encompassing or tiny.

Transitional periods in art, for instance, the romanesque/Gothic to the renaissance, are where her paintings fit, yet her contemporary spin is enhanced by her interest in primitive/naïve art, folk and outsider traditions. “Naïve painters often take the most important element and make it the largest thing in the painting,” she says. The hugely scaled tree in Dreaming Carpaccio, for example, and the mysterious islandlike landform (with a lone tree at the top and a path leading upward, but perhaps nowhere) in A Bowl of Cherries (above) integrate these motifs, while making them peculiarly accessible to the viewer, as they are architectonic and childlike concurrently.

Characteristic of McGoff’s work is the pairing of disparate elements.
In Spring Memory (oil, 28×27), we see two topiary arches; each one shows a different landscape, implying a different kind of journey. Each still life element has a corresponding twin. The pear is paired with an apple; the bluebird with a seashell. The sense of scale, as evidenced by the size of the vase, is whimsical.

Alluding to Eden

The deep, pristine colors—whatever palette she chooses, she always “ratchets the color up a notch”—and her meticulously rendered forms evoke the Garden of eden’s Tree of Knowledge, which links her again to the italian masters, but also to the european and american tradition of the sublime. These edenic landscapes are refreshed by an interest in integrating floral arrangements or individual flowers into the foreground spaces (see Spring Memory, above). some of these flowers are in vases; sometimes they’re still growing in a garden. oddly, the genre those paintings of over- scaled or radically foreshortened flowers most resemble is portraiture, (see Equipoise). The dialectic between portraiture and still life raises the flowers above both genres and enhances the elements of fantasy and playfulness manifest in all her work.



Blockx white and Naples yellow; winsor & newton jaune brilliant; Grumbacher unbleached titanium; rembrandt cadmium yellow light, nickel titanium yellow, cadmium orange, cadmium red, ultramarine light, phthalo blue red, cerulean blue, alizarin crimson and Van Dyke brown; sennelier phthalo green, sap green cool, yellow ochre, raw sienna and raw umber

Differing orders of Perspective

McGoff implies distance through spatial manipulation and radical reductions or enlargements in scale, often giving her paintings the feel and look of infinite space, coupled with the charm of the miniature. Persian and Mughul miniatures have the same fantastical look and could be another tradition she has assimilated. McGoff’s garden and sanctuary motifs do ask us to linger for awhile, with the same sophisticated sense of earthly delight of the Persian miniature or rug. She asks us to fly with her on a magical journey through space into beauty. If “magical realism” can apply to paintings as well as to fiction, McGoff would be its premier practitioner.

Study for Night Garden (mixed water- media, 10×18)
The open bower and winding river are essentially unchanged from the study (above) to the finished piece for Night Garden (oil on wood, 12×18), but McGoff alters the tone by enlarging and darkening the sky, while adding another gazebolike structure. The falling star and the out-of- place shorebird en- hance the mystery.


Meet Deborah Morrissey-McGoff

The elements that inhabit McGoff’s paintings are objects she loves, cultivates, grows and collects. In addition to the painters of the Italian Renaissance, Caspar David Friedrich has been a major influence, as has J.M.W. Turner, whose work surprised her, she says, by its joy. McGoff has had solo shows at the Springfield Museum of Art, the Southern Ohio Museum, the Weston Gallery in Cincinnati and the Robert Kidd Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan. The Arts Midwest/ National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council have awarded her fellowships. Her work is part of the Scripps Howard Foundation, PNC Bank and Cincinnati Financial Corporation.


To learn more, visit her website,

To see more of McGoff’s paintings, go to www.artists article/deborah- morrissey-mcgoff.


Daniel Brown is an independent curator and art consul- tant who writes frequently about the arts.

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