Fire in the sky

James McNulty

Boom, boom! Pop artist James McNulty and his collage “Whistling in the Dark.”

Boom, boom! Pop artist James McNulty and his collage “Whistling in the Dark.”

Photo By brad bynum

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James McNulty recalls an incident, when he was about 5 years old, when his mother, using a cigarette, lit a firecracker, and it exploded in a brief blast of color and fire.

“My jaw just dropped,” says McNulty, “I’ve been collecting ever since.”

McNulty, a self-described “thump junkie” firecracker enthusiast, collects packaging, wrappers and advertisements for fireworks and firecrackers and transforms this raw material into vibrant collage landscapes that depict surreal scenes and convey festive moods.

McNulty is as much a collector as he is an artist. In fact, he seamlessly blends two essential human impulses: to create and to horde. He’s an expert on the history of firecrackers and fireworks. He points out various firecracker wrappers included in his pieces and mentions company names, dates of production—some dating as far back as 1850—and countries of origin.

Apart from the careful arrangement and composition, he doesn’t alter the original designs very much. His original artwork is an ecstatic presentation of found-objects. He has a giddy, childlike enthusiasm for the labels and wrappers featuring space-age rockets and wild mythical animals, the advertisements with kitschy cartoon animals and old-fashioned pinup models.

“This is the fabric of history I’m presenting,” he says. “It’s a documentary on the art of celebration.”

Many of his firecracker labels are Chinese in origin, but featured throughout his work are also wrappers and ads from India, South America and across Europe. There are many languages represented, as well as some choice bits of non-native-speaker English: “Star Ball Contribution” and “Tigers Roaring Fountain,” for example.

The King Kong firecracker label features an image of a fearsome, oversized gorilla sprouting, for some unknown reason, large leathery wings.

“There’s a lot of wild iconography,” says McNulty.

He’s been collecting for years and though he now buys many of his wrappers and labels online from other collectors, he’s been known to comb beaches and dig through dumpsters after the Fourth of July or other big celebrations.

He arranges the wrappers and ads in festive landscape scenes featuring rockets roaring across the stars and bizarre scenes either of soldiers, tanks, guns, bombs and grenades or psychedelic scenes of what he calls a “Noah’s ark of animal imagery”: butterflies, woodpeckers, pandas, squirrels—you name it.

“And it’s 100 percent recycled material,” he says.

McNulty moved from his native Vermont to Venice Beach, Calif., in the early ’80s. He worked as an artist there and gained some renown; he’s been featured in Juxtapoz magazine and shown work in some prestigious Southern California galleries and museums. He moved to Reno in 1993, partly because of his passion for skiing, but still exhibits work in the Los Angeles area.

He’s going to show work in Incognito, an upcoming exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art that will also feature work by Yoko Ono, Robert Williams and Leonard Nimoy, among others. It opens on May 1.

Locally, he has two pieces on display at the Tree House Lounge, 555 E. Fourth St.

“I’m still in awe at this stuff,” says McNulty, while admiring various firecracker wrappers, labels and advertisements—the constituent pieces of his own artwork. “It’s pop art with a bang.”