North Adams Transcript
NORTH ADAMS -- If some art can present a conundrum to its viewers, the paintings of Mark Mulherrin are proof that it’s the process of uncovering meaning that is the engine of the artwork.
Mulherrin’s work is the subject of an all-summer retrospective at the DownStreet Art gallery at 28 Holden St. featuring 30 years worth of art compiled by three different curators. Mulherrin’s creations through the years are divided up into three parts, the second of which, "Plausible Kingdoms," opens on Friday, July 31. This middle section will gather paintings from his decade in St. Croix and his recent years in North Adams.
Mulherrin’s imagery asks the viewer to penetrate the meaning without begging for some ultimate one -- which, he acknowledges, can be frustrating for some people who look at the paintings like puzzles to be solved rather than questions to be pondered without a set deadline.
"When people look at my paintings, they look like they mean something," Mulherrin said. "They do, but what they don’t understand is, they will ask me ‘what does this mean?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ They’ll say, ‘Yeah, but you made the painting,’ and I’ll say, ‘That doesn’t mean anything -- but I do think the painting means something, though your guess is as good as mine.’ Usually at some point in this conversation they think I’m pulling their leg or they think I’m being evasive or just a pain, but I’m really sincere about that, like I have a really definite reason why I do it that way."
Meaning in art is something that Mulherrin views as subjective -- at the very least, he looks this way at his own work. To him, that’s the point of his own work. It’s the asking of the riddle that’s important, not giving the answer.
"To me, to impose or make a meaning explicit in the picture is to spoil it, rather than enhancing it. I think it undermines it," he said.
Mulherrin finds that some people are absolutely insistent on meaning, but even if he has one that has occurred to him, he’ll keep it to himself. He believes in the joy of the open-ended puzzle and relies on a collaborative experience with the viewer that requires some work on their part to bring an image to its next level.
"The ideal viewer is somebody who’s curious enough and comfortable enough with their own anxieties and their own neuroses and look at a picture like that and have a lot of fun thinking about what it might mean," said Mulherrin. "That’s their own brain mechanism operating. Mine is just to put it there in front of them. Theirs is to receive it and work with it."
It’s a philosophy that he has found in old paintings addressing alchemy, hailed as pre-chemistry, but also as an esoteric way of learning in the march toward spiritual evolution. It was a system of teaching with art that offered imagery in paintings that featured odd, out of place juxtapositions that functioned in allegorical terms.
"The pictures are very enigmatic. They don’t really make any sense, but they look like they should or do," Mulherrin said.
Mulherrin didn’t discover such work until after he had been creating his own versions and was struck by the similarities. The revelation also took form as an understanding of language as something outside of words.
"It’s a visual image that produces a very psychological effect and I like that," said Mulherrin. "It’s a really ancient way of using images to make you think. Or feel. It’s not really intellectual and it’s not verbal in terms of language. I think that the idea of making pictures is a non-verbal activity and so ascribing meaning to it through words is very tricky, because you’re undermining its existence as a non-verbal object."
Language is at the center of art as Mulherrin has practiced it. His early years in New York City following art school was a period of forgetting everything he had learned and crafting his own visual language.
"In art school you start out at this really elemental level, it’s like putting mud on cloth, sticking clay to bent coat hangers, stuff like that. It’s really monkey stuff," he said. "Out of that, you’re supposed to find your language. What happens is as you’re mucking around with this monkey business, the teachers are giving you books to read and they’re speaking this language, this art language, and it starts getting attached to the objects prematurely so that you think that what you’re doing is actually more important than what it is, which is somebody mucking around trying to find their vocabulary."
To Mulherrin, the artistic process -- that is, the journey to find your own voice -- is as much about stripping down as it is about building up. A lot of that has to do with a purity of perception that might stop paying attention to the swirl of information in any person’s life and focus inward to let the voice eventually stop speaking without innocuous influence. To build, it might be best to go to a place of blankness -- a clean slate.
"A lot of time what happens is that artists look around at what’s going on and then employ their own unique turn of mind, habits of the way they move their hand, things they think about, their obsessions, their biography," said Mulherrin. "They combine these things with what’s going on to make a language that fits into what’s going on everywhere else. And they short circuit their ability to find their own language when they do that. It takes some time to let the language that you’re supposed to speak find you."
That is exactly what happened when Mulherrin moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands in 1990. For practical reasons, it was to get work -- this is after Hurricane Hugo decimated the island -- but artistically it offered him many more opportunities born from isolation. He hadn’t done oil painting in 10 years. Instead focusing on drawing -- St. Croix brought him back to a place where he could strip away all the clutter and recreate himself as an outside artist through sheer circumstance.
"I was pretty isolated from the art world," Mulherrin said. "You can’t get art magazines there or anything like that. When I started painting again, it was in a very, very isolated place so that the way that I went about it was very hermetic, it was very, very outside of whatever was going on. I wasn’t aware of what was going on. I could get on a plane and go to New York or whatever, but most of the time I was very, very outside of what was happening."
The landscape was also a great influence to Mulherrin. After the hurricane, civilization was not just decimated, it was made absurd and surreal.
"I went to this place that was completely destroyed," said Mulherrin. "It wasn’t a beautiful island, it looked like it got hit by an atomic bomb. When I went there, it was funky, it was very funky. There was a sail boat in the bank. Everything was in the wrong place, it was like one of my paintings. Everything was upside down -- the bank was in the harbor and the sail boat was in the bank and everything was cockeyed."
The visual circumstance met with Mulherrin’s creative approval and spurred him on to work more intensely on mastering painting.
"I liked everything all topsy-turvy like that," he said.
Mulherrin moved to Massachusetts after a decade on the island -- he still has shows there and a group of followers who know his work well. His instruction work at Austen Riggs has also added to his own work -- he taught improvisation to his students at a point when he was at his most structured. He took his own advice and moved forward with his art. This has created a career of differing styles, though recognizable as the work of the same mind.
"There’s a real consistency to what I’m doing," Mulherrin said. "It might take wildly different stylistic bents, but essentially it’s the same thing."
The retrospective has given him the chance to take stock in his total output and he feels that the body of work is more the point of his endeavors than any individual painting. The method is same, though, regardless of the level the work is examined and Mulherrin finds that he gets the same thing out of his work as his audience -- open-ended puzzles posited through a visual language.
"You keep building it piece by piece and the meaning is accrued as the elements are entered into that world," he said.
Mark Mulherrin can be found online at blurb.com/user/store/sno