An artist as storyteller


He draws on multiple narrative traditions for his paintings, layering historical Western and Eastern mythic and poetic imagery with imagined and experienced situations. And he writes about what he does with a penetrating, philosophical wit.

Of oil painting, for example, he says: "It is an odd, and perhaps ironic accident of our language that the word pain takes up most of the room in the word "paint."

And he likens the studio to "an uptown sandbox for grown-ups, a context for intellectual delight and a place where the spirit can play."

A native of Boston, who studied painting at the Pratt Institute in New York, Mulherrin worked as a musician and performance artist at places in the city like Danceteria; then was a painter and set designer in the Caribbean before moving to the Berkshires, where he now lives in Williamstown and teaches painting at the Austen Riggs Institute in Stockbridge.

An exhibition of his most recent work, most of it done in the past year, is the subject of a solo show through March 3 at the Plum Gallery on Water Street.

These new paintings are a departure, he told to me, in that they come entirely from his imagination.

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As a result, they appear far more spontaneous and loosely drawn than earlier work I've seen, which tended to appropriate figures, animals and birds, recognizable from medieval and classical art, and arrange them in poetically themed situations.

The new paintings carry forward this thread of interest, but the brushwork is far looser; and the paint, itself, has become a starring player — textured and frenzied, often in warm tropical colors — rather than a means to creating an illusion.

Yet Mulherrin never completely abandons his narrative inclinations — part myth, part dream, part superstition. The titles he conjures offer intriguing, if contradictory clues — "Fish Holding Cloud Up," or "It Snowed in Malibu," or "Bird Who Drank the Sea." Others are clearly based on myth or the bible: "Icarus," "Lazarus."

While the situations depicted may seem ambiguous, the shapes of animals or trees or humans or land features are always recognizable, if only symbolically.

Mulherrin is at his best here in the larger canvases — like "Fish Holding Cloud Up" — that offer a scale to match his energy. These works come off with assurance and a compelling presence.

His smaller paintings — an all-yellow "The Butter King" and a murky blue-black "Recreation of a Constellation" for example — many of them in frames painted to match, seem, by contrast, overworked and self-conscious.

Mulherrin has taken a big step with these newer works and while he wavers somewhat in direction, he shows himself as a bold and imaginative artist/storyteller.


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