Mark Mulroney discusses vintage Playboys, Catholicism and the comic side of blood.
Mark Mulroney’s visual and sculptural work depicts a body in gross excess: engorged genitalia, numerous oozing bodily fluids, and characters in between ecstatic and sadistic states. Explicitly sexual and mostly NSFW, Mulroney’s work is itself refreshingly hyper and perverse, reinforced by his surprisingly succinct and brightly colored artist statement: “People don’t want to die, and they want to have sex.”
Though thematically juvenile, his work isn’t exclusively such and the labor used to create the works is not forgotten, especially with a section on his website entitled, “TEDIOUS INK DRAWINGS.” Many of his drawings are traditional in execution but subversive in content, with dense landscapes that could take hours to digest. Broad in scope, his works encompass everything from a miniature nude woman carved from wood to a child’s bedroom mural. When his oeuvre is laid out, his aesthetic attention to form affirms that, although not one to evade the crude, he is willing and able to incorporate it in vivid and sophisticated terms.
Mulroney provides levity in an art universe choking with sober academia. Depending on your mental state at the time, any piece could cause an onslaught of laughter or of tears. His playful inventiveness acts as a flashback to youthful fantasies fraught with appendageal obsessions and a reveling in cartoon gore and guts. Though his artist statement addresses adult conundrums, his art conjures memories of a less media driven existence, while providing twisted amusement.
Effie Bowen For your upcoming solo show at Mixed Greens, the subject matter includes islands and vintage issues of Playboy. How did you prepare your material and decide on the content?
Mark Mulroney I just work and see if a theme emerges and go for that. It is winter in Syracuse so I like to look at warm pictures and naked bodies so that is what I am doing now. I suppose when summer rolls around I will be using a lot of cool colors and be drawing a lot of water. I don't work to tell me where I am. I work to let me go somewhere else.
EB How is life in Syracuse?
MM Pretty solitary with lots of terrible food and college basketball fans. I can't wait for baseball season and the Syracuse Chiefs to start playing again.
EB Tell me about your homemade baseball cards. Are they personal relics? Gallery material? Sold at games?
MM That is a great idea. I should walk up and down the aisles of a baseball game and try and sell some of my cards. I could just yell, "ORIGINAL HAND-PAINTED BASEBALL CARDS HERE, GET YOUR HOME-MADE PUSSY EATERS BASEBALL CARDS HERE!!" I would love that. Up until now I just make them and put them in a drawer.
EB You incorporate a wide scope of materials and techniques in your various works. What kind of works, art or otherwise, do you like?
MM I always like what kids make before they learn that there are right and wrong answers. I also listen to a lot of really angry metal. It fills my head and helps me to focus. I am also into amateur wood carvers, the kind of person who has a pocketknife and some free time and decides to whittle a three legged dog or a lop-sided eagle.
EB What's the process for the series of vintage-looking works? They feature old-fashioned black-and-white staged scenes with colorful cartoon additions.
MM Those works are more or less collages. I found a book of photogravures and worked on top of them by gluing some elements and painting others. The combination of bright, simple shapes and a high quality monotone photogravure is a sure winner.
EB What about the drawings on seemingly similarly aged paper?
MM Some of the paper I am working on recently is between 60 and 120 years old. I use it because it is really good paper. It has a wonderful surface and works really well with graphite.
EB Do you scour flea markets for any other treasures?
MM Of course. I have found a lot of odd things at flea markets. I think the most bizarre thing I ever brought home was a baby's umbilical cord that was taped into a scrapbook. I find myself asking the same questions over and over, "Why did someone make this and how did it end up at a flea market?" Objects that have no answers for why they exist are the best.
EB If you could appropriate any copyrighted subject without threat of a lawsuit, what would you pick and what would you do with it?
MM That lawsuit thing is for real, I have been down that road before. If there was no threat of a lawsuit I might want to be able to use a lot of Halloween soundtracks and just sell them as my own. I have a collection of these soundtracks and just love them. They are albums full of short sound clips like a man getting his leg sawn off and screaming or children losing their eyeballs. I would just create a Halloween soundtrack box set with an illustrated booklet and title it, "Dolly Parton Predicts the Future." I have used that title before in a similar project but the box set of Halloween sounds could be really special.
EB Legal problems only arose in your 2010 show at EBERSMOORE Gallery in Chicago?
MM Yes, and I avoided actually going to court but it was an eye-opener. Had I decided to fight it, I was told that it could take years and possibly cost 30k. My understanding of the law is that I was in the right but I had to consider how badly I wanted to fight to draw boners on comic book characters.
EB Do you listen to Halloween music all year long?
MM I run my Halloween playlist every few months or so. I just imagine what it is like to be in the recording studio when the producer tells the artist, "OK, can you scream like a werewolf is eating your spleen?"
EB What would your illustrated booklet look like? Illustrations of legs being sawn off or Dolly Parton's future?
MM Probably neither. I think I would just do some nice line drawings of plants.
EB There is a lot of blood in your work and it maintains the same magical qualities that liquids in cartoons exhibit; a character gets soaking wet and wipes it off in one swipe or gets brutally cut but the wound heals a second later. Your blatant inclusion of blood, like in Dogs Bleeding Evil (2010), the blood animates, almost becoming a character of its own. All portrayed liquids are voluminous, about to spill their contents, yet they never do.
MM The nice thing about painting blood or water or sperm is that it has no definite shape so you can twist it in any direction you like. It is a really fantastic formal tool that allows you to move a composition in any direction without having to introduce new elements into a picture. I also really like fat blobs and curved lines.
EB Do you consider the blood in your drawings violent?
MM Perhaps I should see the blood in my work as violent but I tend to see it as comic instead. The scenes I create seem absurd to me but I would imagine not everyone would agree with that.
EB I don't feel like your scenes are violent but I'm interested in the way that they depict blunt signifiers of violence. Were these elements always in your work?
MM Some of my earliest drawings were pictures of shark attacks. I must have seen Jaws and I did pages of pencil drawings of people falling off boats and being eaten by sharks. As long as I have been drawing I have been depicting comically violent situations. There is a long tradition of Catholic art that both eroticizes and tortures bodies. For Catholics, pain is pleasure. God shows his love by punishing you.
EB I'm assuming you have a history with Catholicism?
MM I went to Catholic school for twelve years and was an altar boy for four. I enjoyed Catholic school because it gave me a work ethic and no expectation of ever enjoying life.
EB Do you currently practice?
MM No. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic schools and was terrified of sex but I stopped going to church as soon as my parents let me.
EB What experience from your childhood has had the biggest influence on you?
MM When I was five I saw an image of a naked lady standing on top of a waterfall in an issue of Playboy that my Dad had hidden under the bed. It had a huge impact on me and I can recall that it seemed like a picture of the Garden of Eden but Adam was missing. I didn't fully understand why I liked looking at it. I just knew that I did and that was enough for me.
EB I always follow the links on your site and I love the manner in which you update your website. I feel the bond between your work and these cultural oddities like a preacher pleading forgiveness on YouTube or a young nude girl jogging on a treadmill. What is your relationship to the things you link to and why it is important to place your work alongside those artifacts?
MM I just point a finger at the things I like. The naked girl on the treadmill was fantastic. I am sure that it was meant to be a turn-on but I just saw it as a really great short film. In case you were feeling guilty about watching her boobs bounce around I provided you with an opportunity for redemption by clicking on the link that allows you to offer God your apologies.
EB How did you locate the cartooning style? What about it worked for you?
MM Working in a style that allows for exaggeration means I can do anything I want. Like most kids I grew up with cartoons. Perhaps if I grew up in 14th century Florence I would be drawing like the Renaissance masters but I grew up in the '80s so I draw like Walt Disney.
EB Did you read comics as a kid?
MM Just the comic strips in the newspaper. I like the look of comics because they were easy to copy and figure out how they were drawn. I remember lots of them but never really latched onto one that I thought was great. I hated Family Circus, those kids seemed like crybabies and Peanuts was totally boring to look at and read.
EB But you feature Charlie Brown in your work, right?
MM I have used him but it has more to do with the shape and color of his head than his personality. My concerns are more formal than conceptual. I am not interested in any sort of Peanuts or Charlie Brown commentary- I just like his fat head.
EB I also despised Family Circus but was remembering the ones where Jeffrey would run around and have a dotted line showing all the places he had gone in a day. That reminded me of elements in your work where a line will extend a point in space, similar to my parent's old childhood books with dotted lines coming out of every orifice to animate the character like they are peeing, pooping, bleeding- a playful defacement. I consider it an instinctual act, yet it functions thematically and makes perfect sense. How do these seemingly instinctual flourishes function?
MM If I knew how my instincts functioned than they would no longer be my instincts, they would arrive from some other place that was more self-aware. I often just feel like something needs to happen in a certain spot and do it, if it doesn't work than I just say, "Bummer, let's not do that again."
EB How old are you?
EB The oldest kid to grow up in the eighties?
MM When I was an undergraduate a teacher told me that if one didn't achieve fame by the time he was 30 then he should just quit. I decide that no matter what I would always just say that I was under 30. That became untenable a few years ago so now I am trying to go for that eccentric old loner artist thing like Darger or James Castle.
EB Another way you "point a finger to things" on your website is through your own text. You highlight meeting Greg Louganis, your mother's opinion on your art works, and a very unique artist statement. How does this sassy, but pertinent language, complement your works and what are your thoughts about artist statements?
MM I have never really understood why artists are expected to write about their work. Everything I have to say is in the work, so why then should I write an explanation of what the viewer is looking at? Why not allow the viewer to interpret the work for themselves and not feel that they have to "get it right?" A lot of people are afraid to offer their own interpretation of an artwork for fear of feeling stupid. I am not opposed to artists writing about their work but I don't think it should be expected. A lot of artists pretend to be smarter than they actually are by using expensive "art words" to describe their work when all that they end up doing is creating confusion and alienating viewers.
EB Why do you think artists use expensive words or, more importantly, why do you not?
MM There are lots of reasons why some artists decide to use academic language when writing about their work. Perhaps they have a legitimate reason but what I often see is an attempt to make work seem more important or profound than it actually is. I also think that some artists try and dictate how their work will be viewed and understood by an audience. This seems very stingy. Explaining your work in words might also be a practical necessity if you want to continue showing. If your work can be easily understood than it makes a curators job all the easier because they don't have to guess what something is about and they can justify and support their decision to show your work. My feelings about what art should do have more to do with creating a mystery than providing an explanation. But it is also very hard to get grants if you just say that you plan on painting some pretty pictures so you better talk about how your work will blur some new boundaries or obfuscate an existing paradigm.
EB How do you manage this in your grant applications?
MM It is very simple. I don't apply for anything. I decided years ago I could either spend my time applying for stuff or making stuff and I chose to make stuff.
EB What stuff do you think is good?
MM Here are three things I like: Asesino (an extreme metal band),
Oreos (an extreme snacking delight),
The Oriental Trading Company mail order catalog (an extreme accidental art project).
EB Oversaturation, understandably, is a theme in a lot of art I see now. Instead of responding to the influx and accessibility of these medias, I get the impression that you have been making these detailed landscapes for a while. Could you describe your urge to make them and how they function alongside decidedly minimalism collages?
MM Some pictures are better when they are filled edge-to-edge and some are not. I get tired of doing the same thing over and over again so I might make a few minimal pieces and then decide that the next piece has to have absolutely no empty space and then after that I might do a small monochrome painting.
EB Your highly intricate ink drawings alert me to my own role as voyeur and they even feature voyeurs inside the work. How do you start on such specific and intricate pieces?
MM I generally just start and see where things go. I lose interest if I plan too much. Usually I just draw one character and then decide whether or not the next character will want to kill or fuck the first one and then I draw the next and the next and so on. . .
EB How does voyeurism play inside your work?
MM Voyeurism is a part of almost every art work. The piece is not done until someone looks at it and reacts.
EB What is the general response to your work?
MM Horror. . . and then laughter. . . and then shame for laughing.
EB How has your work shifted from when you first started making?
MM It hasn't budged at all. I just got a little better at shading.
EB If you weren't an artist you would be. . .?
MM A child psychologist.
EB I imagine you making work next to stacks of Playboys and old paper while listening to metal bands. What else is nearby and informing your work for this show?
MM That is a pretty accurate description. Right now my room is full of inflatable palm trees, monkeys, and naked women all popping out of cardboard boxes. I am working on an idea for an upcoming show and need lots of boxes and inflatable characters.
Mark Mulroney's show, We're Never Getting Rescued With That Attitude will run from February 14 - March 16, 2013 at Mixed Greens Gallery in Chelsea. For more, visit his website.
Effie Bowen is a performer and contributor to Interview and BOMB Magazine.