In preparation for Jill Mulleady’s debut at Galerie Neu

Stefano Pirovano

First solo show of Jill Mulleady at Neu marks a decisive step forward in her career. We sat down with the artist to better understand how she is evolving.

Next Friday Neu Galerie will inaugurate the first solo exhibition in Berlin of the talented artist Jill Mulleady, interpreter of a painting which is stylistically daring, restless, unpredictable, quick and certainly able, as far as the message is concerned, to trigger the thoughts of the viewer. ‘Mouth to mouth’, so is the show titled, is first and foremost a relationship between two things. Between the artist and the painting, the artist and her public and the public and the painting. Thus Art, as a way to give birth, or keep something alive.

Mulleady, who has been living in Los Angeles since 2013, was born 38 years ago close to Montevideo, Uruguay, where her family moved to from Argentina in 1976, after the coup d’état that overthrew Isabel Peron. However Mulleady has grown up in Buenos Aires, where her parents returned in 1983 to escape the increasing power of the military regime in Uruguay which lasted until 1985, despite the referendum, that took place in November 1980, a few months after Jill was born, demonstrated unequivocally that the Uruguayans rejected the military’s proposed new constitution. So it happens that today Mulleady has also a Swiss passport ‘without having ever lived in Switzerland‘ she cares to point out; still, she has lived in Europe for about ten years, where she first studied theater with Ariane Mnouchkine in Paris, then painting at the Chelsea College of Art in London.

My parents never dealt with art‘ Mulleady tells us,’ yet there have always been artists in my family‘. Like his great-grandfather Eugène Bracht, tireless traveler who taught landscape painting at the Prussian Academy of Arts from 1882 to 1892, when he broke with the director of the institution following the much-discussed early closure of Eduard Munch’s exhibition at the Verein Bildender Künstler. Or like the composer and musician Carl Maria Von Webber, whose works are the cornerstone of German Romantic opera. ‘I’ve been painting since ever; it comes natural to me. I can’t pinpoint a precise moment when it all started. Painting has always been around me‘ explains Mulleady when we asked her where her vocation comes from.

So, if you seem to pick up a vague scent of faraway authors in Mulleady’s works, like William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Bertold Brecht or Tennessee Williams, then you are not at all wrong. And if you grasp a certain theatrical aspiration in the pieces on show at Neu, perhaps suggested by painted geometric patterns that frame works like ‘The Greene Wave’ or ‘Fantom’, it may be useful to know that Mulleady is clearly interested in the idea of stage design. Besides the above-mentioned giants, there is also Antonin Artaud amongst Mulleady’s masters, to whom she has dedicated some engravings and a triple-portrait, ‘The Green Room’, which was exhibited for the first time last year in a solo show dedicated to Mulleady by Kunsthalle Bern. At Neu, there is also ‘Self Portrait in 2066/Dementia’ that Mulleady, ironically optimistic about her life-expectancy, painted mixing her somatic traits with the same Artaud’s ones.

Besides theatre, I’m interested in cinema. When I concieve a painting, I often do it in cinematographic terms‘ goes on Mulleady. Here, however rather than thinking of Fassbinder, Bergman or Kubrick, you could figure out a desire to represent time flowing, movement or the multiplicity of point of views that belonged to cubism and futurism – and, in truth, also to that didactic art typical of the many Middle Ages of the world, in the East as in the West. In this case, the issue comes up in the first of the three paintings outdoors, titled ‘The erupted citadel’. A lying woman, half-naked yet androgynous like many of the human figures in Mulleady’s world, gets up, wears a black coat, and heads to a place ‘which could be anywhere where there is a coast touched by water‘. The sun rises, beyond the town, and paints the sky of the same color of the jeans the woman is wearing. Is this the beginning, or the end of a tale, or perhaps of a memory?

Indeed, also in this instance we think it’s about narrative, in the dimension of remembering. The woman reappears in another painting. This is titled ‘The connection is not private’ and again it represents a timescale, over the course of an hypothetical afternoon. The moment is a bridge between two psychological instants, like the ones a person could live while checking her smartphone or lighting a cigarette, before or after a very short walk (notice the two characters on the dock, in front of them there is a small boat). We can also spot some references to Munch here – artist that Mulleady ‘adores‘ -, with the vertical structure of his paintings and those lines of red-hot color which slither on the canvas like chubby tropical snakes.

The tale/memory ends at night, and the work becomes somehow more intimate and secret. The woman who is smoking looks straight towards us, while the other woman, nude and squatting in a childlike and primitive posture, has her back to us. Point Lobos, title of the painting, exists; it is a natural reserve not far from Oakland, but like the other two scenes we have previously described, this is also a place which could be set in any theater of the world – ‘I am a mix of America, South America and Europe‘ states the artist. In this piece, the hidden reference may be Pierre Klossowski, whom Mulleady had already invoked in her show at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (2015). ‘I’ve often heard my painting calls to mind Balthus. To tell you the truth, his brother Pierre is much more important for me. There is something sharper and androgynous in this artist. And I’m above all fascinated by the way the image and the word interconnect in his works. Or better, I look at the space that is created between writing and painting. Regarding Klossowski, I’m interested in the energy you find in that line of thinking which also goes through Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade. I see in them an attempt to transform pleasure into a way of being‘. There is nothing to do with pornography here. Rather, sexuality is perceived as a form of dialogue and communication. It’s not a business but its opposite. ‘If you want, it is a romantic way to understand sexuality‘.

Moreover, a copy of The Baphomet (Klossowski, 1965) was hidden in the exhibition Jill Mulleady had at Gaudel de Stampa in Paris (This is not a love song, 2016). Only few people may have noticed that the book was upside down under the metal drape stretched out in the middle of the room. Whereas the text she is referring to in the exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples is obviously ‘Origines cultuelles et mythiques d’un certain comportement des dames romaines’ (Klossowski, 1968), which has given the title to a painting Mulleady has set in the Secret room of erotic drawings in the museum. ‘ It is very important to me to break the idea of morality imposed by capitalism, and by that capitalism that exploits religion. In this regard, I think Klossowski is able to offer a different point of view‘.

We also talked about that dimension of memories, which is very hard to disregard once you find out that the ‘citadel’ that emerges far in the background is actually where the artist spent her first few years of life. The five still-life paintings on show also belong to this dimension. The sink with the dead cock, the toilette of the submarine (which looks at the Kitchen Sink Realism before than at Duchamp), the fish counter, the unmade bed (while the city of Los Angeles is burning outside), the ray with the seal and the the bottle of orange soda – this latter one being a tribute to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and James Ensor, as well as the ‘chromatic’ key of the exhibition, which indeed insists on the color orange. Mulleady paints a more objective reality, overtly aimed at reflecting more defined states of mind – or, again, the distance between them and the same reality. Also in this case, there are cross references from work to work, like for instance the sponge left on the sink in ‘The dead cock’ and the one that appears in ‘Fantom’ under the seal’s venter.

The self-portrait we mentioned at the beginning and ‘The green wave’, which seems to follow on from the self-portrait, when the ashes of the artist (according to her own will) will be spread at sea are a whole other story. The strange spotted animal that Mulleady/Artaud has in her arms, almost as disquieting as Leonardo’s Ermine, disappears in the frozen wave-shape from where the skull stands out. That very same feeling of apprehension reappears, with strong reference to Picabia and the vache period of Magritte, in the feline spots that a Ssteventeeth-century woman is licking away from her skin. Nowadays the real discovery is that of a painting which plays with styles, but always remaining surprisingly coherent with its own narrative.

November 25, 2020