by Annette Hinkle
There’s something about Mark Mulholland’s paintings with their vibrant colors and multiple layers of shape and form that, as a viewer, make you just want to dive into them. And if you ask Mulholland, he’ll agree.
Back when he was getting his master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied under painters Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown, Mulholland discovered a shape that would inform his work for years to come. That shape is the wave form — a triangular line that looks as if it’s about to topple over to the right. He feels the shape was inspired by the landscape he encountered during those formative years in California.
“I lived in San Francisco and went over the Bay Bridge every day to get to Berkeley,” explains Mulholland. “In winter the water would crash against the piers.”
“Joan Brown always said you had to make a personal statement,” adds Mulholland, who, with the discovery of that single form, found the language he needed to do exactly that.
The wave is still evident in Mulholland’s work, but it has been joined by layers of additional elements — flowers, stems, curlicues — shapes that reference, not the sea, but the garden. In fact, “Secret Gardens” is the name of a solo show opening this weekend at Christy’s Art Center in Sag Harbor featuring his newest abstract acrylics.
“They’re subconscious gardens – which makes them secret,” explains Mulholland of the work. “They reference real gardens. Before, the shapes were just patterns. Now with these paintings, they’re linked together by stems, and imitate the growth pattern of the garden.”
To find inspiration for his secret garden paintings, Mulholland need only glance out the door of his Sag Harbor studio for reference. It’s a veritable backyard oasis which even well into fall is still a riot of color and texture, backed by the soothing sounds of a water feature.
“We had a big garden when I was growing up in Connecticut,” says Mulholland. “But the garden here is the palette I use.’
The colors of Mulholland’s work do indeed, reflect the vibrant hues of the garden in bloom. Deep fuchsia, rich yellow, russet red and glowing orange are just a sampling of tones that make his paintings almost glow from within and nearly three dimensional in appearance.
Much of the effect comes from the layers upon layers of patterns he applies to the canvas, followed by a light color wash between each. The successive layers of shape and form create window-like opportunities to peer deep into the painting. With a little imagination, a viewer can feel as if he or she is looking through a tangle of brush to a hidden view.
“These are more symbols of gardens than actual gardens,” he explains. “They’re hypnotic to look at. It’s like finding that special place by a lake or in the woods. We’re always looking for the secret spot.”
While many abstract artists have a sense of looseness in their work, Mulholland’s pieces are very precise in form. Shapes and lines repeat with a regularity that give the work a cohesive feel of balance and unity. Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that Mulholland was good in geometry in school.
“They’re so linear,” he says. “Every time I look at them I see something new. I like that about them. I think you’re drawn to look at them up close.”
Like an architect with his measuring tools, Mulholland puts in the time before he even touches a paint brush to make sure his compositions are exactly the way he wants them to be.
“They are all measured out,” he explains, pointing to one of his pieces.
As a starting point, Mulholland plans out a shape, like the wave, across the top row of a canvas, figuring how many he can fit at a certain height. Once that row is completed, a straight edge is used to draw down the canvas at the crest of the wave so he can line up successive rows of waves below. Those waves become the first layer of many that will follow.
“I chalk them out,” says Mulholland. “So if I have to adjust the height, I can wash it off. It’s planned and very balanced. Usually I can get the gesture right pretty quickly. It’s good I can make the marks with chalk, I can make them exaggerated and not commit if it doesn’t work.”
While Mulholland’s work has been seen locally as part of group shows at Guild Hall and Ashawagh Hall, this show at Christy’s is his first solo exhibit on the East End.
“I’m really excited about it,” he admits.
Though he thinks of Sag Harbor as really being “home,” during the week, Mulholland is in the Bronx where he works as an art teacher at a public middle school. He admits to sometimes taking his color inspiration from his students, who come to the artistic process with a certain amount of carefree abandon.
“I’ve copied some of their colors,” he admits. “They’ll just take any two colors and mix them together, they’re not afraid at all.”
Teaching art also means that Mulholland is also able to immerse himself fully in an activity he truly loves.
“I get to do artwork all the time, all day long and I come home at night and paint,” says Mulholland who has an apartment across the street from the Bronx Botanical Garden — the ultimate inspiration for a painter with his interests. “It’s really important to paint every day. You get a lot better and a lot more stuff opens up for you.”
“And if you put a series of work together that is unique I think that people really take you seriously.”
Mark Mulholland’s “Secret Gardens” opens with a reception on Saturday, October 30 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Christy’s Art Center, 3 Madison Street, Sag Harbor. The show runs through November 14 and is on view Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Top: Mark Mulholland in his Sag Harbor studio.