Wednesday, April 13, 2011
By Tom Wachunas
On more than a few occasions I have seen “Surreal Pop” or “Pop Surrealism” in reference to Erin Mulligan’s paintings. Those descriptors are understandable enough (even though her work has nothing to do with Pop Art per se), but somehow still inadequate in getting at the esthetic essence of her work. The original Surrealists, cousins of a sort to the Dadaists, were in some ways anarchists and iconoclasts at heart, Surrealism being as much an attitude and lifestyle as it was a brand of visual content or process. And some of the true pioneers of the movement, given to producing meandering reactionary manifestos on the condition of human existence, were just plain nuts.
As far as I can tell, Erin Mulligan – among our region’s most accomplished artists - is as level-headed an individual as I’ve ever met, is no anarchist, and has written no meandering manifestos, inflammatory or otherwise. She does, however, exhibit much of the same astonishing technique and fertile imagination as some of my favorite Surrealist painters – Dali and Magritte coming immediately to mind. Additionally, as I was reminded when I saw the framed oils and mixed media works in her current show at Market Street Art Spot in Minerva, her uncanny mastery of drawing and painting technique raises unmistakable connections to the Old European Masters. Strip away the specific pictorial eccentricities of subject matter in Mulligan’s delightful paintings, and you really do end up with a traditionalist of the first order, even if her brand of content is somewhat weighted with Surrealist sensibilities. And in this postmodern art milieu of often baffling celebrations of ugliness, hers is a beautifully refreshing – and I think accessible - body of work.
So is there a way to handily categorize her esthetic when encountering, say, her oil painting called “Air Raid,” with parachuted catfish afloat in a churning, dark sky on fire, or “In a World of Harts, Broccoli is King”? Here, two antlered bucks with fish tails (‘harts’ being the Old English word for male deer, as Mulligan so graciously informed me) hover in an airy, heraldic setting. Even the frame, as in many of her oil paintings, has a distinctly classical elegance that somehow makes the strange creatures living inside perfectly logical. It’s art true to itself.
An unexpected surprise in this show are the 17 small (roughly 8”x10”) pencil drawings with acrylic color washes, all populated by Mulligan’s unique, morphed (or anthropomorphized) animals, reading like illustrations for a parallel universe fairy tale. Absolutely charming, even as they are occasionally, gently mischievous. I like to think of her work - with its wild embellishments and strange dramas more quirky than really threatening - as Baroque Zoological Phantasms.
Any way you unpack this mesmerizing menagerie, the paintings are supremely memorable, eminently intriguing visions.
Photo: “Gardener, Don’t Track Down the Gardener, You Might Not Like Him After All,” pencil and acrylic wash, by Erin Mulligan. On view through April at Market Street Art Spot, 219 N. Market Street, downtown Minerva. Gallery hours are Noon to 8 p.m Friday and Saturday.