Last year, during New York City’s extended lockdown, one of the few works still on public display was a mural hung outside the Whitney Museum of American Art by the painter Jill Mulleady. Though the museum was shut, a large-scale reproduction of Mulleady’s painting We Wither Time in a Coil of Fright (2019) remained visible to pedestrians on the ground below. When encountered in a near empty street, the picture made for strange viewing. Mulleady’s mural is one of reverie and dream. Set at the verge of a wood at twilight, a diverse cast of characters array themselves amidst a volcano and winding stream. Twilight marks the time of the picture as a point of indistinction, a threshold state where corporeal and psychic states loosen. At the far left, a group of goats stand upright and stare Narcissus-like into the stream below. In the immediate foreground, a woman dances as if caught in trance. Behind her, in the middle ground, a man stares longingly across the stream as a figure behind him tosses trash onto a pile. On the far right of the picture, set on a rocky outcropping, a couple are entangled in an embrace, while further back, at the edge of the forest, a witch has stumbled out of the darkness. As if transfixed by twilight’s hazy, transitional energy, each of Mulleady’s figures seem unaware of one another. The effect is both otherworldly and strange.
What is the source of this unreal and otherworldly vision, and what prompts painters like Mulleady to try to summon another world? In 2019, before a global pandemic suspended everyday life between an oscillation of terror and banality, the artist and critic Aria Dean mapped this turn to the unreal in contemporary painting as a response to the disorientating effects of the internet. Writing in the catalogue Unrealism: New Figurative Painting, Dean posited that, unlike painterly realism of the previous century, where painters sought to represent the everyday lived realities of ordinary people, contemporary unrealism works through the disorientating image world of the internet, trafficking in the realm of the virtual, not the actual.
Although Dean’s essay addressed the present moment, a more thorough genealogy of the history of painting finds traces of the unreal and otherworldly in American art throughout the twentieth century. In the winter of 1943, Alfred H. Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, used the word “Magic Realism” to refer to painters who coupled a painterly “realistic technique” with “improbable, dreamlike, or fantastic visions.” Art historian Angela Miller has argued that this turn to the “social unworldly” in American art in the 1940s could be understood as a type of “queer symbolic realism,” forms that were adopted to counter the crisis of subjectivity set in train with the advent of war and fascism. “Private symbols replaced collective forms of belief and value,” Miller writes, “forms that had proven to be too susceptible to fascistic manipulation.” Miller insisted that the painterly procedures of queer symbolic realists of the 1940s should not be confused with Surrealism, and Dean, separately, makes a similar point about the contemporary unreal. In both cases, these artists summon a strange reality, not a surreality. Rejecting a formulaic approach to the unconscious, painters like Mulleady – and peers like Nicole Eisenman and Tala Madani – seek to reclaim a fundamental strangeness that is found at the core of everyday life.
For these painters, the return to the unreal seems all the more necessary: it’s a strategy to work through the ubiquitous sense of strangeness and social precariousness symptomatic of the manifold crises of the moment. These painters attempt to imagine a different world altogether, one untethered from the virtual sphere. The subterranean currents of strangeness found in Mulleady’s work and the work of her contemporaries is a vision that balances disenchanted glimpses of everyday life with the possibility of the world’s sudden reenchantment. In our own time – a time of global pandemic, environmental catastrophe, and political crisis – it seems clear that the search for another world is evidence that our own world has failed us, or perhaps, more appropriately, we have failed it. Drawing our attention to the spectres of an extinguished world, Mulleady’s work asks of us, once again, to reconsider the transfigurative powers of painting and its capacities to depict life otherwise.
Mulleady’s twilit landscapes and disquieting street scenes appear as much a product of everyday life as they do this visionary summoning. The twilight condition is neither real nor imaginary, but a condition that exists on the boundaries between these states. Mulleady’s twilight world is currently on display at the Huntington Gallery and the Hammer Museum for the Made in L.A. Biennale 2020: a version. At the Hammer Museum, Mulleady is exhibiting the three-paneled painting, Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain (2020), which seems on its surface to confront a quotidian scene – less overtly dreamlike and mythological than her Whitney mural – but still balanced on the precipice of the imaginary.
Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain is set at dusk in MacArthur Park, Los Angeles. The sun has just set over the city and is visible on the horizon as a dirty, radioactive glow. Long shadows creep across the park. On the far-right panel, a colony of seagulls jostle over scraps of a cake and, amidst this torrent, a municipal-worker with dark rings around his eyes fishes through the debris. A visible glow on the horizon also limns the pathway, as well as in the worker’s orange vest, suggesting a strong tonal correspondence between figure, scene, and atmosphere. A hooded figure smokes a cigarette, while two dogs bite at each other’s necks. Crowning the top register of the picture, a large black bird circles the park.
Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain was painted in the Summer of 2020. Although the catastrophe of the present is not immediately visible in the work, its effects are mobilized as a peculiar intimation. It is unclear, for instance, whether the orange glow on the horizon is a sunset or a fire. This pictorial trait of unease and disaster is a common theme in Mulleady’s work, evidenced in paintings such as This Connection is not Private (2018) and Insomnia (2018), or even the volcano imprinted on a single eyeball in We Wither Time in a Coil of Fright. Confronted with a personal adversity or an imminent natural disaster, her figures often appear nonplussed, disaffected, engrossed in their phones, or at other moments, they simply stare back at the viewer, aggressively. When they are not distracted, their stance can be confrontational. Mulleady emphasizes this irreverence in her figures’ stance, gait, and defiant obstinacy.
For Mulleady, the catastrophe of the picture is rarely painted directly, it often resides at the margins, at the very edge: through a window, on the horizon, off in the distance. Consider the painting Insomnia, exhibited at Galerie Neu in Berlin for the 2018 show Mouth-to-Mouth. At first glance, the painted scene seems unremarkable: the work is comprised of a single bedroom, an unmade bed, and a glass of water. The painting’s title clocks the time and occasion of the picture as a distressed and prolonged moment. Anxious, dull, leaden, the texture of the crumpled sheet suggests as much, though there is no figure present to ask, “Why is the picture sleepless?”
Placed in the far-right corner of the room is a small glass of water which reflects the interior. The glass reads as the uncanny of the picture – containing the room in its distortion, more than it contains the figure’s sleep. On the top left corner, a single window covers the entire wall. The wall opposite the window is bare. In its size and stature, the window almost takes on the look and feel of a painted picture, and even though the view through the window is dark, a shifting bar of light projected onto the bedsheet’s wrinkled folds suggests that it is almost morning outside. Its source is ambiguous, as if a spotlight, or perhaps the moon had decided to visit. Further afield, through the window, a fire burns.
When the disaster of the picture is not found at the exterior limits, it’s often transmitted into the bodies of Mulleady’s figures. Two years ago, at the 58th Venice Biennale, Mulleady exhibited The Fight was Fixed (2019), an installation of six paintings in which a collection of minor calamities found its way into the gestures and nerves of her figures. Set within a colonnade and a public square of a nondescript city street, the paintings portray irresolute characters, vexed by mute afflictions and inexplicable pains, some wander through the scene without pants, while at other moments, figures crumble under their own weight. Mulleady’s figures demonstrate that the catastrophe of the present is the everyday; our disaster, the status quo.
The obstinacy of the picture is double, present both in Mulleady’s treatment of her figures and visible in the way she reworks her historical referents to meet the demands of the moment. Another painting exhibited in the Huntington installation serves as one such example. What is Lost in the Fight reimagines a work the artist had encountered as a child at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires, Ángel Della Valle’s La Vuelta del Malón (The Return of the Indian Raid). Della Valle’s painting is a colonial fantasy that reverses the realities of European colonialism by showing the Indigenous population as a marauding band of thieves, eliding the actualities of colonial occupation and dispossession. In Mulleady’s version, Della Valle’s figures have been removed and the horses take on demonic qualities – they tear at each other’s flesh, they writhe in pain. All the while, a single coyote looks out from the picture at twilight, searching for a way out.
In a time of pandemic, a twilight world where banality and horror share the same boundary, the unreal is increasingly expressed, socially and politically, through the picture’s distortions and incommensurable forms. Through these exacerbations, Mulleady draws out a twilight feeling, a nerve-fraying strangeness that lies at the heart of experience. The moment of twilight in Mulleady’s work, from We Wither Time in a Coil of Fright to Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain to even What is Lost in the Fight, that not only breeds transformation – where the day transforms into night – but also intimates a transfigured state. In a refracted light, Mulleady’s figures declare their opposition to the world’s reason. This act of transfiguration strikes a pause in duration, in the incessant unfolding of a moment, and makes the position of a secure subject standing at a remove from the world she beholds, strange.
Twilight becomes an opportunity to wither time away – to dance by yourself, to stare absentmindedly across a stream, to lose yourself in an embrace – moments distanced from the accelerated pace of contemporary life and its chaos, suffering and indifference. Affected by a different measure of time, Mulleady’s figures seem to strike at our desire to exist otherwise.