Janet Mullarney: My Minds i
Multi-disciplined artist confronts a gamut of emotions in a twisted fantasy of sculptures, shadows and illustrations at the F.E. McWilliam Gallery
In the centre of the gallery, on an imposing 6 x 4 metre light box stands an assemblage of small sculpted figures carefully placed there by the artist Janet Mullarney. No mere knick knacks or frivolous bibelots these. Each piece is informed and inspired by Mullarney’s artistic journey, her personal camino or pilgrimage around some of the great art works in the Western canon from the Cycladic sculptures of ancient Greece to medieval frescoes by the Florentine painters Fra Angelico and Giotto; from Renaissance masterpieces to works by Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Lorenzo Bonechi or the contemporary German artist Georg Baselitz.
Born in Dublin, Mullarney claims she began drawing when she was just one year old. In 1967, at the age of 15 she won the Texaco Children’s Art prize and used the money to fund her first trip to Italy. From her base in Florence she hitchhiked around Europe, visiting churches and museums, picking up post cards of her favourite works. Then she ventured further to India and China, Egypt and Mexico. Nowadays, Mullarney spends half the year in Dublin and the other half in Masaccio’s village near Florence. Her critically acclaimed work has been shown in galleries from Sligo to Shanghai.
Initially known for her large scale stone sculptures, Mullarney’s appreciation of Indian art caused her to move away from representations of the full figure to its individual parts, a leg, a foot, the better to express a spiritual essence, a sense of inner peace. She surprised herself when she began scaling down her work to make innovative pieces using wood, papier maché, cardboard, paper, sponge, aluminium and other found materials. This proved to be the key to a new freedom, a cathartic vehicle of expression for the artist’s own feelings, a way of commenting on the human condition.
In the exquisitely illustrated and informative catalogue which accompanies this show, a work of art in itself, Mullarney pays tribute to Aoife Ruane, curator of the Highland gallery in Drogheda. Ruane introduced her to the lighting designer Marcus Costello then encouraged her to do her utmost to realise what was in her mind’s eye.
Mullarney describes how the collection of quirky, curious pieces that make up My Minds i came together with patience, persistence and pure effort. She notes how 'the very struggle to make work is actually what makes it work.' This is an artist who did not hesitate to smash a piece of work if it looked too twee then bind it back together with glue and gold.
She offers us a screaming child with nails sticking out of its head. Here we see 'Picasso’s Daughter', drawn from Picasso’s painting of his son in Pierrot costume, looking anxious and vulnerable, and there a horse with four heads entitled 'My Mother and Me'. Headless figures suggest a refusal to pay heed.
The figures entitled 'Lost Tribe' wear serrated cardboard hoods and strut like astronauts in a lunar landscape. As daylight wanes in the gallery, the characters on the light box become more luminous and cast longer shadows. Animated by the spirit of their maker, they look real enough to come alive at any moment.
A second installation entitled 'Another Minds Eye' presents a different series of figures mounted this time on perspex stands. Notable among them is the character covered from his head right down to the toes of his multiple legs in silver paper. Suspended paper mobiles move around in the spotlight and shifting shadows capture the imagination as much as the actual objects.
Displayed in a glass case like precious stones or ancient relics are rows of small shapes sculpted in unfired clay and decorated with pure pigment, another oblique reference to medieval art.
Ink and watercolour drawings related to the exhibited works are revealing of the range of Mullarney’s talent. Sketch book pages allow us to follow the process from drawing to 3D sculpture. And then, in the pleasing panoramic photographs which appear in the exhibition catalogue, the sublit sculptures revert once more to beautifully delineated one dimensional shapes.
What I take away from this show, as well as the precious catalogue, is a fond memory of a perfectly poised pink-eared hare ('St Anthony’s Temptation'), a girl in headstand pose, her legs in the air, her skirt billowing down over her hidden torso ('Uprooted'); a female figure bending over to draw Giotto’s circle, the bravado of the 'Pink Fighter'.
One has to admire the honesty of the artist in confronting raw emotions such as wrath, envy, lust, greed. The works on display are deeply personal to her and though we may have difficulty in understanding their true meaning we cannot deny Mullarney’s faith in her art or her genuine artistry.
Janet Mullarney: My Minds i runs until January 21 at the the F.E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge. For more information and opening times visit www.femcwilliam.com.