By Tom Wachunas
“There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”
― Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam
“Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso
EXHIBIT: Symphony of Life: The Art of Erin Mulligan, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH JULY 20; 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton; 330.453.7666 www.cantonart.org
For the last eight years or so, I’ve watched Erin Mulligan continually secure her place as one of this region’s most compelling and, no doubt, popular painters. In all that time, this exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) is the largest gathering of her work I’ve seen in one place. It allows some of my past observations about individual works, scattered through many group shows, to finally coalesce into a more unified appreciation of her oeuvre.
In some ways Mulligan’s work recalls the symbolic sprawl of Hieronymous Bosch paintings, the stark scenarios of Salvador Dali, and the elaborate allegorical journeys and characters described by J.R.R. Tolkein. After viewing this show three times, however, I find other hackneyed generalizations such as ‘surreal’ and ‘fantastical’ (which I’ve previously employed in discussing Mulligan’s work) to be ultimately unsatisfying descriptors of both her content and style.
Those terms don’t go far enough in separating her iconography from many other painters who render all manner of alien landscapes, goulish monsters and slap-dash sci-fi silliness. Not that there’s anything wholly vapid about that level of sensationalist pictorial entertainment, but I think Mulligan offers something more conceptually engaging if not enigmatic.
If only in their virtuosic technique, with their astonishingly fine, crisp detail, her musings are of a distinctly elevated character. She doesn’t just put oil paint on the surface of her clay board panels so much as embed it. In the laudable tradition of the finest Flemish masters, she builds up her paintings in successive layers of pigmented glazes that give a remarkable chromatic depth to her images.
Some of the paintings are reminiscent of the tenebrism employed by post-Renaissance masters whose figures appeared to be sharply illuminated in contrast to darker, relatively featureless backgrounds. Mulligan’s murky, vaguely defined backgrounds in pieces such as The Consequence of Being Human, The Poetry of Deception or Cicadas After Rembrandt evoke real drama. The sheer theatrical intensity of these painted stories is, ironically enough, all the more augmented by their very small scale.
At times their theatricality is simply eerie. At others, it’s utterly nightmarish. Saturn after Goya is a direct appropriation of Francisco Goya’s horrific Saturn Devouring His Son – one of his “Black Paintings” from late in his life. Mulligan’s version, every bit as ferocious and bleak, might be a fable about lost or destroyed youth, as her Saturn ingests a child dressed in bunny pajamas.
In the paintings with the most brightly illuminated passages, as in Cosmos Umbilicus among others, the light, for all its otherworldly lustre, seems less than joyous. It’s a tentative light, more like twilight than dawn, and one that seems to impart a patina of pessimism. It never fully overcomes the pervasive sense of tainted innocence, conflicted emotions and frail mortality threaded through many of the works here.
Rabbits breathe fire or morph into frogs, cats grow wings, fish parachute into fiery battles, humans grow spider legs or birth alien parasites… Even the air in Mulligan’s strange narratives is equal parts sparkling fairy dust and ash. Yet the chimerical whimsicality of her images belies their very robust and urgent embrace of vexing dualities in this world.
We’re told in the recent issue of the CMA magazine that Mulligan compares her paintings to orchestrated music – symphonies – to be perceived and unraveled by the viewer. An interesting metaphor, to be sure. Her spectacular paintings remind me that soaring, melodious lyricism is never so sweet as when it is placed against haunting dissonance.
And that, as Mulligan suggests in her statement for the show, is the stuff of life.
PHOTOS (from top): Cosmos Umbilicus; The Consequence of Being Human; Nadine’s Curtains; Katywhite (A Treaty with the Slugbots) and Katywhite Embryonic Stage