Much of the conversation at this Saturday’s exhibition of paintings and drawings by Colleen Mulligan seemed to revolve around female anatomy. The voluptuous, fluid shapes rendered in vibrant peach and rich cream colors set upon striking black backgrounds conjured up a distinct association in viewer’s minds. There were clearly discernable body parts in several of the nonrepresentational works– fingers, knuckles, and even a penis– and each piece had a unique, indefinable shape. Standing alone, the paintings or drawings might elicit a different effect, but taken as a whole, they seemed to generate a state of prolonged contemplation on feminine genitalia.
Upon closer inspection, however, one realizes that the message is not so simplistic and that this interpretation, while inevitable, tends to shortchange the work. Peering past the powdery blue veins and blushing folds of flesh, one is rewarded with subtle allusions to facets of nature. Botanical and organic details lead the careful observer down a different path, past the dominant visual element of lush and bountiful curves evoking the notions of growth and fertility, toward the more understated contrasting elements that summon a sense of dormancy and even decay. While some images engendered the sensation of release, others displayed a distinct state of tension.
So okay, we’re still conjuring up sexual imagery, but the paintings are in a larger sense a meditation on the nature of relationships. The sexual imagery merely suggests that romantic relationships are the focal point of this contemplation. The images show us beauty and pain, connection and detachment, unification and solitude; the challenges of coupling. This sense of relational intricacy was repeatedly underscored in “Complexities of Union,” the aptly titled exhibition of Colleen Mulligan’s that opened Saturday at the Tarryn Teresa Gallery in Santa Monica with 24 different pieces on display.
I sat down with Mulligan to find out more about her life and work. She recalled a childhood in New York spent painting sunsets on rocks she’d found, doodling on napkins and placemats in restaurants, and sketching in the margins of paperbacks before she learned she wasn’t supposed to do that. Her natural talent for realistic drawing made skeptical grown ups wonder if she had traced her subjects. Luckily her father was always ready to stand up for her, eager to testify that he had witnessed the young artist in action drawing everything by hand.
At the age of 15 she was inspired to become a professional artist. On vacation in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Dali museum was the setting for an epiphany. “I realized it wasn’t self indulgent to want to be an artist, that art is good for people. Before that I wanted to be a Mother Teresa and save the world.”
She attended Pratt Institute in New York City, from which she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2002. While in college, Mulligan traveled to Europe to study art in the cities of Venice and Amsterdam. The European culture enabled her to feel more comfortable expressing some sexually implicit material. “Before living in Europe there was a struggle to create without reservation or censorship. Living in Amsterdam in particular, where conventional society coexists with explicit sexuality, gave me a new perspective on my work.”
Mulligan relocated to Los Angeles at the end of 2004 and says that the city has had a definite impact on her art. The horizontal nature of the physical space in California, in contrast to New York’s tight vertical structures, has allowed more room for internal discovery. She says her forms have become more organic and flowing while at the same time taking on a greater quality of isolation. The intensity of light in California has also influenced her color choices, brightening her palette considerably.
Comparisons to Georgia O’Keefe are unavoidable, but where O’Keefe painted flowers that resembled flesh, Mulligan seems to paint flesh that resembles flowers. She takes the comparisons as a compliment. “O’Keefe was possibly the greatest female artist of her time, and certainly the most successful, so I‘m flattered to be compared to her in any way.” Mulligan cheekily enjoys pointing out that O’Keefe never admitted to her flower paintings having anything to do with sexuality. “But I think this is sort of a massive prank, like Woody Allen saying his films are not at all drawn from autobiographical experience.” Another distinction between the two artists is that O’Keefe used literal images and magnified them whereas Mulligan uses her imagination and subconscious to manipulate and obscure her subjects. “The end result of both of our work probably evokes a similar feeling, and I think that might account for the association or parallel drawn between myself and O’Keefe.”
The timeline for each piece varies widely from conception to completion, taking anywhere from four weeks to two years. “Each one is like a separate relationship that evolves at it’s own pace,” she said, noting that she is continually evolving and changing as a person, just as her work is evolving and changing. “The innate nature of my work, like my own characteristics, remains intact yet transformations occur, encouraging this sort of symbiotic change.” She calls herself a truth-seeker, always analyzing and contemplating until she finds what she believes and feels is true and right.
The collection included eight large works of oil on canvas and linen priced between $2800 and $5100, the largest being 72 X 72. The sixteen black and white sketches went for $280 to $310. This exhibition runs from July 14 through August 11, 2007 at Tarryn Teresa Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave.G8A, Santa Monica CA 90404.