Explosive collage

James McNulty’s firework wrapper art is stunning in its color and detail

“Desert Storm” by James McNulty.

“Desert Storm” by James McNulty.

Photo By David Robert

You have to respect James McNulty. He saw some potential—in firework wrappers, of all places—and identified an artistic niche that he could fill. As a result, the licensed pyrotechnician has done rather well for himself as an artist who makes collages from nothing but firework packaging materials.

And McNulty’s high self-opinion reflects that fact. He even once compared himself to the legendary Andy Warhol during a conversation with me.

“When an artist invents one’s own realm within a fixed media, it is a revolutionary thing,” McNulty says in his artist’s statement. “I was studying the packaging when my imagination began to compose scapes from these tight registration prints—prints that are literally designated to explode.”

The Nevada Museum of Art is currently home to 17 of McNulty’s collages in an exhibition appropriately titled Pop Art With a Bang! Each piece, crafted between 1985 and 2001, almost overwhelms the eyes with different colors and patterns that McNulty masterfully crafts from nothing but firework wrappers. You can’t just glance at these pieces; each one must be studied for at least several minutes, because so much is going on.

The most amazing piece on display is “Desert Storm,” a collage he made in 1991. The title gives away the work’s theme, although it would be easy to discern without the placard next to the collage. It’s stunning how McNulty was able to take various firework wrappers and, in essence, re-create the major storylines of the Gulf War. As just a small sampling of what was thrown into “Desert Storm,” there are tanks, field guns, bombs (from “Torpedo’s” fireworks, which are interspersed throughout the collage, each one featuring a Batman-esque “Bang!” or “Pop!” in the orange background next to the white torpedo bomb), helicopters, a satellite, an “outer space rocket,” blue bomber planes, “anti-missiles,” aircraft carriers, a “jet helicopter” and even Camel-brand fireworks to provide an Arabian feel. In the middle, wrappers reading “Bomb” and “Night Invaders Light the Sky” give the piece a visual center. McNulty masterfully arranges the piece as if he were crafting a landscape, with the air, water and ground wars all having their place.

I could have stared at “Desert Storm” for hours, as it is so compelling. It is even somewhat amusing; if any criticism could be said about “Desert Storm,” it would be that some could interpret the piece as making light of war.

McNulty’s pieces are best when they have a topical center like “Desert Storm.” Other works, which lack an obvious theme, are not nearly as compelling, although they’re still a whole lot of fun to look at.

Take “Pink Sky at Night” (1995) as an example. Again, the title describes the work: the sky’s pink. And that’s about it when it comes to theme. Long, skinny wrappers, many with animals, fill the left and right bottom thirds of the piece. Other wrappers, these ones more square-shaped, fill the pink sky. There is no visual center, and no place for the eye to focus. The piece is almost frustrating, because I want to find a common thread for all the pieces of the collage. But there isn’t one.

Some of the newer pieces on display show that McNulty’s trying to take his collages a step further: the third dimension. “Auspicious Stars” (2001) uses larger icons than most of his other works, and some of those icons stick out fractions of an inch more than others. I wasn’t sure how McNulty decided what pieces stuck out; it seems like he had a great idea to do 3-D collages, but he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

While some of McNulty’s pieces are stunning works of art, others are merely fun to look at—making the legendary self-comparisons a bit premature.