Part of me just wants everything to stop. Let’s all just go away for a year. Let’s solve this thing and then come back.
In many ways, Mark Mulroney is exactly the kind of person you expect to meet after taking a quick survey of his art. For one thing, he’s so unpretentious that you start to wonder if he might be allergic to it. He can put a funny angle onto everything, in the same way that he crosses levity with something that’s questionably offensive in his work across painting, collage, and sculpture—remixing familiar visual cues from our childhoods, like comic book superheroes, with just boners.
Perhaps we can also glean something about Mulroney from looking at his creative environment. In this edition of Studio Visit, the artist invites Anthem into his Connecticut home and studio, in the lead-up to his upcoming solo exhibition at the Allouche Benias Gallery in Athens, Greece.
Also, don’t forget to check out more of the artist’s work after the jump.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.]
We last saw each other at your show at Mixed Greens in 2015. I saw that the gallery has since shuttered. It was long before COVID. That was pre-Trump even. Remember those days?
God—pre-Trump. I can’t even imagine. I’d love to go back there. My wife and I were talking like “yeah, he’s out of office, but all that horror he unleashed is still there.” That’s not great.
You more recently had a show at Mrs. Gallery called So many of my friends are in trouble. It was decidedly sombre compared to your other stuff. Was that work any less fun to make?
They definitely weren’t less fun, although I don’t even know if that’s an option. I feel compelled to make certain things regardless of whether they’re enjoyable or not. I think if I were only going to make things that I thought were fun, I’d just do nothing but paint baseball players all day or make up random graphics for baseball cards that didn’t exist. But it’s funny about that body of work because it started before COVID for a show and then the lockdown came in. If I were to date those paintings week-by-week, they kept getting a little more sad. If there were a couple of them that are kind of fun maybe, they probably were made January/February. Then lockdowns for us started on March 11th and the figures got more and more isolated. Geez, if I would’ve kept working on those up to this point, I’m not sure if I could’ve painted them looking more lonely.
What are you calling your upcoming show at the Allouche Benias Gallery in Greece?
I came up with the title a couple of days ago because they needed one. I just titled it Let’s get started. Again, that show started coming together before Trump was voted out. The first work I made was post-the riots on the Capitol, basically of a horse cut in half and propped up. I think that show is split between optimism and just admitting where we are right now. None of this stuff is really all that intentional. I wouldn’t define myself as a political artist or someone that wants to make a direct reaction, perhaps to government policy or legislation, with the work. It’s just a feeling of “what’s going on?” and trying to understand where we are through painting because that’s kind of how I figure things out for myself.
My wife and I often have this discussion about political art and activism. A couple of years ago, we worked on this state senate campaign in Upstate New York and that had nothing to do with art at all. This woman who had just decided to run ended up winning her race and it changed the dynamics of the legislative body in New York, which then helped people get rent control, changed the way we do bail, changed the criminal justice system… There was no way a painting was gonna make that change. So I kind of draw these lines between wanting to be an activist or be political in the art, which I don’t generally want to do because I don’t think it’s very effective, and taking very real steps to try and get better people elected. There’s definitely a lot of art that reacts to the moment now—anti-Trump stuff—and I just don’t know how persuasive it is.
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You were telling me that you’ve pretty much always worked from home. Do you like to keep your practice separate from other life things or does everything sort of bleed together?
Oh it bleeds, especially when you work at home, in part because there’s space to move paintings out. I was putting paintings in my wife’s room this morning—“I want to see this up here”—so she was letting me change her room. My brother used to raise reptiles and he said there are certain reptiles that grow to however big the space is you give them. So if you gave them a terrarium, they grow to its size. I find myself doing that. Things just leak out of the room and get placed somewhere, in part because I’m not sure what I think of some of this stuff. I like to be able to look at it while I’m doing other things in the house. You catch a glimpse of it and you’re like “that’s not so bad” or “now I know how to fix that” when it’s in the dining room versus when it’s where I would make the work. Some of this also is to see how they would be in other people’s houses. There are all sorts of work I make where you’re like “I really like this, but I can’t imagine anybody else would hang it in their house.” But I like it, so what do you do with it?
A couple of years ago, I was at this party and the woman who was throwing the party had purchased several of my paintings. She’s a collector who’s always kind of taken an interest in me. Her husband at the time—I could tell he was suspicious of me. She hung my work in her kids’ room and the kids were 8, 9 years old. There was nothing graphic, but the husband knew that I made some work that was kind of graphic. He just kept looking for anything in this picture that was potentially subversively pornographic, asking me “what’s that?” and I’m like “that’s a leaf.” That’s probably the only time someone, without outright saying it, let me know like “I don’t like where your work is in the house.” But then they later got divorced and he’s out of the picture so everything’s fine.
I wonder how many fathers out there have thrown away The Little Mermaid videotape.
[laughs] Once you go looking for that stuff, you’re going to see it. Growing up, we had this faux marble shower with streaks and lines in it, and I would just sit there for years picking out all the faces and the faces doing things. If you will yourself to see something, you’re probably going to.
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Do you make something every single day?
Is it effortless?
I think I have to force myself not to.
It is, and it isn’t.
There are times where I think you need to step away from it because you get in a rut. But it’s all I want to do all the time. And if I’m in a rut, I feel like the only way to get out of it is to keep working at it. Sometimes that’s not the most effective strategy. I really like making stuff and I never really had a shortage of ideas or new things to try, which from a career perspective is terribly unhelpful. If you present people with ten different styles in different bodies of work, it just gets confusing. My thought is “well, over the course of time this will all make sense to people” or even to myself maybe, hopefully. Or not, I don’t know. Right now, I’ve got two paintings on the floor, another thing started over here, and something on my desk that I’m working on. I just bounce around. When they’re finished, I put them up on the wall. If I think I’m happy with it, it goes in another room. If it’s going to go up in a show or something, it gets sent out. If not, it lives in the basement for awhile and then sometimes gets pulled back out so that I can look at it again.
What do you consider a productive day? Can that mean one really great idea?
Yeah. It might just even be a color combination you’d never used before—“that maroon works with that green”—because you get into habits of what works. I know when I’m being lazy. If I have a shitty composition, I can make it look better with good line work. I can always do lines. But then it’s like I’m relying on something that’s old and that’s not very exciting. Every day I try and do something new. It might even be writing a little poem or something. My wife and I started playing music for the last couple of years. We’re not good. I finally learned like two chords. When we first started, I had a guitar that only had one string that a friend gave me. I think because we had a basement in Syracuse that was big, friends would leave instruments with us to store for them. We just started to play ‘em. It was fun to have no training and try and do something. I have this little saxophone here that I don’t know how to play. What I normally do is, I blast away at it while looking at a painting and it just takes your mind somewhere else. You might learn something like “if I do this with my fingers, it makes a crazy wailing noise.” At the end of the day, all you got was one new noise, but that might be great. That’s a good day.
Music seems like a big constant in your life. What does it give you that other things don’t?
I think it’s just about what’s exciting to you. A couple of days ago, my wife and I were listening to Charles Mingus’ The Clown. I’d been listening to this record for years and years and years, but it was the first time that she heard it. She was just super excited: “wow, that is so good!” It’s exciting to just see somebody else excited. That makes you go “this is a great record” and “how wonderful that this record was made.” Then I want to make something. I want to have something I made that makes somebody else go “it’s really exciting that thing Mark made and now I’m gonna go make my thing.” Maybe it’s easier for me to get excited about music because it’s not really my world as much. My career is not wrapped up in being a musician. With music, all I get is the music. I don’t get all the other bullshit. It’s hard to get excited about art if you’re also thinking about the market place or something.
The engagement is pure with some distance?
Oh it has an absolute fan quality, which is the same thing with baseball. I don’t give a shit about who wins any of these games at all. I just like the way the game is played, even if it’s just a high school game. I like the iconography of the sport. It’s just fun to draw logos. I just did this Detroit Tigers player yesterday because why not? It takes like an hour. It’s the same thing with Batman. I never read the comic books. I’ve seen some of the movies. It’s just a cool-looking uniform.
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Do you ever make things specifically for your home, like as decorative objects?
I always want to, but I never do because it becomes so much about me making it and it’s harder to enjoy it when it’s in your house. There are works around the house, but it’s usually because I’m still working on it. As for the things we have around the house that aren’t mine? Some are friends’ works and some of it is just random stuff we found at flea markets. We’ve had this one painting in the house for a decade that I got for a quarter and framed it. We can’t tell if it’s of a little boy or an old man or a woman. It’s just a weird painting. We stare it sometimes and go “what is that?” It changes all the time. Why does it exist? So there’s stuff we have around the house that for us inspire more of a mystery: “I don’t know what this is.”
It’s alive in that way.
Have you ever had difficulty parting with a piece you created?
I’m only really attached to the act of making things. Generally speaking, once they’re made, my relationship with it is over. I’m not gonna say I don’t care what happens to ‘em, but it’s less important than that I made it in the first place. Now—there are a few things that I wish I wouldn’t have sold. There are a few things my wife wishes I wouldn’t have sold. But for the most part, no. I’ve never sold my sketchbooks and there have been offers. I can’t sell those. That’s why we made the Sketchbooks book. It’s like “no, you can’t have the sketchbooks, but you can have this.” My wife wrote the opening essay: “this isn’t one of his sketchbooks and it’s not nearly as good.” It’s kind of funny because it defeats the purpose of making the book in a way. If I held onto everything, my basement would be way too full.
You title your sketchbooks. Did you at one time have a neighbor who was a crybaby?
Totally. This was when we first moved to Syracuse. We rented for two years because we weren’t sure we were going to stay there, above these people who were wonderful. They were great neighbors and we still hang out with them. But there was one day where the guy was complaining about something. I went upstairs and wrote “my neighbor’s a crybaby” on the book. That’s it.
Do you have another example of someone else’s work that you’ve brought into the house?
We have a friend we met in Syracuse who’s most notably a musician. She was in bands that toured and whatnot, but she’s a photographer and artist. Her name is Courtney Asztalos. So we were over at her house and she had this box with a plexiglass cover on it. She painted the whole thing blue and on the plexiglass cover are two eyes and a mouth. We were like “wow, that’s really great.” She didn’t think of it as her art. She just gave that to us and we’ve had it in our house for a couple of years now. It really is the most perfect piece of art for a COVID lockdown because it looks like a face trapped in this empty box. It makes so much sense right now. It speaks to the moment right now. It’s just one of these things where we stare at it. It’s kind of fragile because it’s newsprint, and it’s falling apart and I keep having to repair it. I can send you a picture of it.
You also sent me a picture of painted blocks sitting on top of a toilet. When you called them soap boxes, you also meant soapboxes?
No, no, no, no.
Oh. I thought it was more deliberate like “the stuff you say belongs in the crapper.”
I hadn’t even thought of that. [laughs] That actually makes it more interesting to look at. When the pandemic first started and we had all these soap boxes, I just started painting them. Now I’ve got piles of them. Now I’m actually thinking back to your question about doing things for the house because when I started painting one of these boxes and continued to paint more, I was like “this would look cool on the shelf lined up.” So yeah, actually, in terms of the soap boxes, the only reason they exist is to have some color in the house. I hadn’t thought of that. They’re not gonna go anywhere. They’re just in the house.
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Are you feeling optimistic about Joe Biden’s America despite our current circumstance?
I really fluctuate between pessimism and optimism. I think all of the ideas and all of the resources we really need to have an amazing country are here. In human history, we never really had an equitable, fair society amongst different ethnicities, religions, sexualities—and we could do that. What an amazing thing. But everybody’s gonna have to give a little. I think the possibilities of having that are just amazing, but you see the forces you’re up against that want things to go back or not change at all. It seems insurmountable at times and just—fuck. How do you move forward when half the country thinks there’s this cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that are in charge of the government? How do you combat that kind of mindset? Logic doesn’t work, honestly.
I got so shocked when Trump got elected. I was thinking “no fucking way this guy wins.” Seeing that made me think “I have no idea who I’m living around. I don’t understand this country. I don’t understand my neighborhood or neighbors.” I don’t want to be that off guard and that shocked again. I need to be able to see stuff coming, at least for our own well-being so we can shift if we need to. My wife and I would, back when we could, go to this bar down the street that was very much a local working-class, pretty Trumpy bar. I would shoot the shit with these guys. I just want to understand why in the world you’re so opposed to immigrants. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Usually what I get back is horse shit—the worst arguments imaginable—and you can’t say to them “god, you’re just fucking stupid” because that’s totally ineffective. So I would just listen and I’d let them know where I was. This was my only goal in those conversations: when they’re watching Fox News or OANN and they hear about the libtards or the liberal elites, they’ll have to go “was that liberal Mark guy at the bar who just bought me a beer really a Satan worshipper?” The bar conversations are often about family and what they’re doing with their lives so there are moments where I feel hopeful—where we see each other—and we can have genuine disagreements about policy or the budget, but we really can’t disagree on the humanity of a person. And now that everyone’s in lockdown, I can’t go to that bar because I’m not allowed to. Where am I seeing that side that believes in QAnon? I need to talk to that dude. It’s very hard sometimes to not be angry.
You’re not heading out to Athens either I’m presuming.
What has the experience been like putting that show together remotely?
They do a pretty good job. They have this guy with a 360 camera come in and photograph the entire space. So just like Google Maps, you can put yourself in there and virtually walk around. I think everybody knows that this is not the best way to do anything, but you can’t have a bunch of people gathered together getting sick. I think people are doing a really good job trying to keep things alive as best as they can, but also in a way that, frankly, isn’t very exciting. It almost makes things worse because you miss it more. Part of me just wants everything to stop. Let’s all just go away for a year. Let’s solve this thing and then come back. I’d prefer that. But people have businesses to run. I’m sure you saw this when this first started: all the galleries did online viewing rooms and there were virtual fairs. People try to gear up for it and be enthusiastic about it, but now I think everybody’s just done—over it. I can’t look at another online viewing room. How is that different from the website you already have? So I would be all for just stopping. When we get vaccines and get things safe again, then let’s come back and be excited to see each other.