Janet Mullarney died in Italy on April 3rd, 2020 after a long illness.
Janet Mullarney, Catherine Marshall and Mary Ryder (eds), Irish Academic Press, 222 pp, €45, ISBN: 978-1788550925
Janet Mullarney is a unique publication, a compilation of short personal tributes to the artist and a complete and concise archive of her works from 1962 to 2019. Designed by Vermillion, the book is lavishly illustrated with full-page colour photographs of Mullarney’s work, some in detail and in installation, offering the reader unprecedented insights into the range and diversity of her output over the years. As a consequence, the publication is primarily visual in its impact. A suite of photographs of Mullarney’s My Minds i exhibition at the Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda in 2015 captures one of her most idiosyncratic and memorable installations. A range of small figures cast enormous shadows on the screen behind them. In contrast the 2010 RHA exhibition Things Made is on a more epic scale, highlighting the diversity of Mullarney’s work and its unique blend of traditional craftsmanship and fantastical imagination. Another image shows Mullarney at work in her studio, a seemingly chaotic and industrial space, where a cupboard painted Tuscan pink hits a familiar note. Another reveals a glimpse of the interior of the artist’s Italian home, where in a spartan white-walled space her large figurative sculptures add an otherworldly dimension. A photograph of the young Mullarney in 1985, shows her reclining amongst a group of her life-size wooden figures. They appear as companions and confidants, revealing of the purpose and meaning of her work.
The book is the idea of Catherine Marshall, former curator of the collection at IMMA, and Mary Ryder, a writer and lifelong friend of the artist. The two have been researching and archiving Mullarney’s work and decided to bring it together in a permanent form, instigating the production of this valuable book. It is a homage to one of Ireland’s most distinctive and accomplished artists, written by people who have worked with her on different projects and who offer personal accounts of her work and of Mullarney herself, who is “a tour de force”, but also a self-effacing individual.
One of the difficulties in synthesising Mullarney’s oeuvre is its bifurcation. She moved to Tuscany in 1970, aged nineteen. She has lived there ever since but has also kept a foothold in Dublin, where she was born and where her family live. Home-schooled before attending Sandymount High School, where she befriended Ryder, Mullarney seems always to have been a “lone ranger”, an outsider. On moving to Italy, she attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence where she learned about traditional sculptural processes and materials, subsequently working for a furniture restorer. She travelled all over Europe on a shoestring, making Tuscany her base. Later in the 1990s Mullarney journeyed more widely to India and Mexico, experiences which had a profound impact on her work. She began exhibiting sculpture in Italy and Ireland in the late 1980s, when it attracted the attention of some of the country’s most influential curators, Jobst Graeve at the Model, Sligo; Paul O’Reilly of the Limerick City Art Gallery and Declan McGonagle of IMMA. The latter acquired her Straight and Narrow in 1991. This polychrome wooden sculpture, a large wall-mounted piece comprising two figures, an angel with flapping wings and red hair pulling a male figure upwards, introduced Mullarney’s work to many Irish viewers. It has featured in several of IMMA’s exhibitions over the years. Acquired at the same time as work by James Coleman, Willie Doherty, Kathy Prendergast and Stephen Balkenhol, it embodies for McGonagle, “connectedness and the idea of human as part of an inclusive longer story”. Its obvious religious connotations combine with its references to Italian Renaissance art, making it both anachronistic and strangely familiar to Irish visitors to IMMA. It encapsulates several key aspects of Mullarney’s practice in its use of traditional materials, its reworking of established iconographical subjects and its dynamic understanding of physical space. Above all it has a levity and humour that characterises much of her work, making it subversive and profane rather than deferential.
Since 1991, Mullarney’s work has been exhibited regularly in Italy and Ireland and in Mexico and further afield. Among the most memorable one-person exhibitions in Ireland is The Perfect Family, which was shown at the Hugh Lane Gallery, the Model and Limerick City Art Gallery in 1998. This revealed to many the darker side of Mullarney’s vision or as Alice Maher calls it, her “wild black humour”. The exhibition features claustrophobic family shrines peopled by hybrid beasts and life-size wooden figures, dressed in medieval robes. A mixture of animal and human form, these saintly creatures both nurture and devour their young. The work resonates with contemporary concerns around the Catholic church and the institution of the family, but more fundamentally it expresses a universal psychological reaction to the trammels of close familial relationships. In its distinctive surreal manner, it is connected to similar explorations of femininity and symbolic roles of mother and child, lover and protector found in the work of her fellow artists Dorothy Cross, Kathy Prendergast and Alice Maher, and internationally in the work of Louise Bourgeois, Marisa Merz and Merlene Dumas.
Mullarney is a well-established figure in the Irish art world. She has exhibited with the Taylor Galleries since 1997, was made a member of Aosdána in 1998, and an associate member of RHA in 2010, the same year as the RHA Gallery staged Things Made. This was followed by My Minds i at the Highlanes in 2015-16. In 2019 the artist lent several private pieces to IMMA which, with work from its own collection, featured in IMMA Collection: Then and Now, Janet Mullarney. Mullarney has made major contributions to public art projects in Italy and Ireland. Most notably, in this country, in 2001 she made work for the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast and for St Ultan’s National School in Cherry Orchard, Dublin in 2006-09, on which she worked with O’Donnell and Tuomey, two of the contributors to the book. Anyone who has visited the Royal Victoria will know how its artworks provide a comforting, transformative aspect to the building. Mullarney’s Sleep, a curled-up wall-mounted wooden figure, offers compassion in an institutional and clinical environment that, despite the best efforts of its staff, can be a negative and depressing place to spend time in. Her work at St Ultan’s provides, as Sheila O’Donnell writes, “moments where a child could be surprised or thrilled”. The works are all at ceiling level, forcing the gaze upward, where an alternative universe exists. A flock of sheep graze on the roof beam, a bright red dog sits on a multicoloured knitted blanket, a blue pair of hands hold out a crimson chair. These works not only enhance and enrich the school building but provide its pupils and staff with “beautiful, strange and irreverent surroundings”.
Mullarney’s status as outsider, typified by her self-exile in Italy, is identified as essential to her view of the world. Marshall suggests that her upbringing, her home schooling and her years in Italy have given the artist’s work “the perspective of distance”. The resulting lack of security for Mullarney, which Marshall compares to that of James Joyce, offers freedom and forces a greater focus on personal vision. Reading through this book one comes away with the sense that Mullarney’s outsider status may have made her acutely sensitive to her immediate environment. There are many examples of artists and writers who settle abroad but whose work remains fixated on home, Joyce included perhaps. Mullarney’s work is by contrast profoundly affected by Tuscany. Her early work evokes the medieval and renaissance art of that region and is steeped in the historical and vernacular peculiarities of the locality. It has since developed into ever more complex explorations of psychic trauma that expand considerably on this framework. Through an engagement with European, Mexican and Indian culture, but primarily from Mullarney’s deeply observant and empathetic understanding, it has used the human body as a vehicle for psychological and emotional expression.
The choice and use of materials are fundamental to the success of Mullarney’s work. She makes things, from all kinds of materials: wax, wire, plexiglas, linoleum, wool, cotton, terracotta, ceramic, glass, sponge and found objects. She is an expert wood carver who leaves the final works with an unrefined surface revealing the construction process. Wood carving is a medium associated with medieval and renaissance art, or as McGonagle writes, it is “culturally loaded”. She transforms this primal technique through the application of colour, either in hesitant pale tones and patterns as if faded over time, or in strong pervasive hues that evoke Indian art or works of other ancient exotic civilisations. The addition of elements made of wire, sticks, plaster and wool create complex constructions that have a playful, humorous dimension. One example is Adrift (c 2001-03), where the head of a wooden figure conjoins with the bow and stern of a boat, its ad hoc rigging of wire, stick and ribbon creating an elaborate antenna that extends into space. More recently her work has used conventional sculptural materials such as stone and metal in very unconventional ways. The giant elongated dislocated limbs of Indian granite of Byzantine 1 (2011), displayed in the grounds of IMMA until recently, parody classical sculpture and question the idealisation of the fragment. The work is both monumental and intimate.
The sculptures are placed on found objects rather than conventional plinths. These range from wooden boxes to tables and chairs. These often have a personal connection to the artist, such as the forgotten table that Mullarney salvaged from her garden to use for a display of work at the Museo della Ceramica at Montelupo in 2017. Dino Carini, writing of this, describes Mullarney’s deployment of such objects as “the great utopia of the fragment”. The base problematises the sculpture and situates it in the present as in the giant aluminium torso, Rishabadeva Again (2009), shown at the RHA in 2010, where, placed on a spindly-legged table, it looks as if it might topple over but maintains a delicate balancing act. In My Soul (2009) a ball of aluminium with handprints is presumably cast from a piece of clay. It sits on a little wooden workbench, pockmarked by age and use, an object that Mullarney brought back from India.
In addition to its close reading of the human body, Mullarney’s work is equally responsive to that of animals, using them to explore vulnerability and abjection. In the series Se Fossi Cosi (If it had been like this) (2007) a pair of animals, a deer or rhinoceros and a large dog gently commune in attitudes that are distinctly human. In Alpha and Omega, (2003), a bronze statuette of a cow stands on a plexiglass shelf from which the intense LED lights seem to dematerialize its form, rendering it a vulnerable sacrificial beast. Animals reference classical and Hindu iconography but, as one contributor argues, Mullarney’s chosen myths are far more congenial. Her humanoid animals are edgy creatures, serving as household demons or gods or pathetic beings in search of comfort. Piccola Ascia Blu per il Mare Ghiacciato (2002) consists of a strange malformed rhinoceros made of wax. It sits on a pale blue satin cushion and holds a mirror in its human-like arms, projecting its trauma towards the viewer.
The childlike aspects of Mullarney’s work are mentioned by several contributors. She has “the gift of knowing how to draw on immaturity to perform a catabasis into the regions of games, dreams and childhood nightmares”, according to Arabella Natalini and Stefano Velotti. This playful quality of her work is most evident in how the artist manipulates and juxtaposes her bizarre configurations. This playing out of form is most intriguingly displayed in My Minds i, where small marionettes and dancing figures compete and collide in an ingenuous parade in which recalcitrance rather than order take the lead. The works have of course a deeply adult content, inviting the viewer to acknowledge their inner frailty and the fragility of the human psyche. Reading through the titles of Mullarney’s work – At-Sea, Self Search, No Way that Was Me, Contrition/Reparation, Oblivion, Shitstirrer – a journey of personal trauma is revealed. Marshall suggests that her work reveals “hidden scars” and a sense of shame. It forces the viewer to identify with this suffering. As McGonagle suggests, the work, like all art, is ultimately about communication and Mullarney’s, through its “collaging of outward (social) beliefs and associations with interior, individual beliefs and associations”, conveys empathy. In an age obsessed with technology and consumerism it reverts to a basic humanity but does so in a complex and often unsettling manner. Through its emphasis on images of the work, this book allows the art to speak and is a fitting tribute to an artist of Mullarney’s considerable status. Her work reminds us, as McGonagle writes, “that we all swim in a sea of continuities, of memories and dreams which suffuse our reality”.