Paintings that go ‘pop!’
Crazy cartoon figures in new 1078 show
‘I never know what people see when they come to these paintings. I don’t really know what is going on in them myself,” Michael Mulcahy said, laughing heartily.
Mulcahy laughs a lot, which may explain his fondness for cartoon images, as evidenced by the 25 paintings that comprise his new show at Chico’s 1078 Gallery.
It’s called The Monday Funnies, perhaps to distinguish it from “the Sunday funnies” in daily newspapers. Those cartoons tell stories, but these vivid “pop-artish” paintings, to use Mulcahy’s description, do nothing of the sort—or, rather, they leave it up to the viewer to find a story, or stories, in them.
Mulcahy calls them “collages in paint,” acknowledging that their cartoon elements often bear no relation to each other and are there simply because Mulcahy thought they brought color or architectural balance to the painting.
The retired building contractor and antiquarian book dealer has lived in Chico since 1994, having moved here from the Bay Area. Of medium height and with a neatly trimmed white beard, he talked with energetic enthusiasm during the Thursday (Feb. 2) reception for the show. He pointed out that the first painting on the left as one enters the gallery, “The Artist Eagerly Awaits Visitors to Open Studios 1988,” is a cartoonish self-portrait made “when my hair was a little redder.”
Most of the paintings in this exhibit are based on cartoons and bad advertising, he says. He clips images he likes from books and magazines and tosses them into a box. Then, when he feels like starting a new painting, he looks through the box, finds an image that sparks his imagination, and builds a painting around it.
He’s been painting such images since the 1970s, and he calls this exhibit “sort of” a retrospective because it looks back at only one of several styles he’s developed.
Mulcahy’s website (mulcahyart.artspan.com) shows he’s also painted figures, landscapes, “strange animals” and Middle Eastern scenes, among others. What they have in common is his affection for “bold, brilliant color” that goes “pop!” and his devotion to the acrylic medium.
In his gallery talk, Mulcahy said he was like most kids in that his love of cartoons began early. It started with Disney figures, but he soon graduated to such outré cartoonists as the great George Herriman, creator of the often surreal Krazy Kat, in which Ignatz the mouse pelts Krazy with bricks but the cat takes it as a sign of love.
Herriman was a big influence on the generation of cartoonists who emerged in the ’60s, people like R. Crumb, Charles Schulz, Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman. For his part, Mulcahy has never been attracted to traditional cartooning, with its running casts of characters and storylines. He’s not a storyteller, he says; he’s a painter who appropriates cartoon images and transforms them into something else.
Whether that qualifies as art, and whether Mulcahy’s paintings in this exhibit are good art, is really up to the viewer. I myself don’t know. I enjoy the brilliant colors and fanciful figures and appreciate the artist’s technical prowess, but most of these pieces are a jumble. Mulcahy says he can’t make sense of them—well, neither can I.
Others will have a different experience, of course. That’s why I recommend that anyone who enjoys cartoons, or cartoon-style illustrations, or even just colorful paintings see this show. You’ll enjoy it.