Book Review: Janet Mullarney

Janet Mullarney by Catherine Marshall & Mary Ryder (Eds), publsihed by Irish Academic Press

Catherine Marshall and Mary Ryder (Eds.)
Irish Academic Press, 224 pp

The untimely death of a brilliant artist feels like a shock to the system. A lifetime of work is swiftly brought into sharp focus, akin to a camera lens settling on a once moving, now static subject. Through this process of crystallisation, we observe their entire career as a consecrated whole, as if seeing it undisturbed for the very first time. Out of this retrospective survey emerges a legacy, fully formed and luminous.

Published in June 2019, the catalogue raisonné of the work of Irish artist, Janet Mullarney, provided some archival comfort in this regard, following the sad news of the artist’s passing on 3 April 2020. Often assembled posthumously at great effort and expense, the catalogue raisonné is a comprehensive and annotated record of an artist’s practice, aimed at providing a compendium of all known works for future scholars. However, rather than an independent academic study, this meticulously composed monograph – which catalogues Janet’s work from childhood to 2019 – feels more like an intimate collaboration, with the artist’s words resonating throughout, alongside those of her respected colleagues and closest friends. In this way, the book achieves a rare blend of archival rigour, critical contextualisation and personal reflection on the artist’s life and work.

The editorial preamble refers to the fact that Janet lived between Ireland and Italy for over 50 years, likening this “geographic bifurcation” to a kind of Joycean position of exile, from which the homeland could be observed “with the clarity of distance”. Such marginality, the editors suggest, also strongly permeated her work across different art forms, evident in her pursuit of “the figurative, when the world craved abstraction”; in her competency as a carver, “when those skills were decried by the avant-garde”; and in her lifelong creation of artworks that were “architectural and object-based” at a time when “sculpture seemed to be moving towards video and photography”. The editors assert that Janet’s extensive travels taught her about “art and life in equal measure”, with her work ultimately being driven by a “search for psychic freedom and balance.”

A near comprehensive archive of over 400 works is catalogued in this book, alongside studio documentation and installation shots from pivotal exhibitions in Irish and international venues, including The Model in Sligo, The Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and Casa Masaccio in Tuscany, Italy. Janet’s solo show, ‘The Perfect Family’ at The Model in 1998, was instrumental for me as an art student; I remember it vividly and with great affection. Perhaps most immediately jolting was her use of saturated colour – those bright vermilion, azure and saffron pigments so intoxicatingly at odds with the muted Irish colour palettes of the era. Unconfined to plinths or walls, her sculptures seemed to wildly occupy every corner of the gallery, dangling like acrobats from ceilings, or nestling in mattresses upon the floor. The seemingly anachronistic art historical practices that we had been studying in books – such as sculptural assemblage, bricolage and Arte Povera of the 1960s – were emboldened and brought to life for us in that dazzling show. The theatrical staging of hand-crafted figures with found objects and repurposed furniture – such as pockmarked wooden benches, well-worn mattresses and rusting metal bedframes, with institutional implications – served to emphasise human vulnerabilities. For me, the show conjured paradoxes of the soul; it felt simultaneously fanciful and serious, ancient and modern, demonic and saintly, unique but strangely universal. Her talk as visiting lecturer in Sligo IT that same year proved equally stimulating and generous. In her presence, the bohemian life of an artist seemed so effortlessly exotic.

Without doubt, the defining feature of Janet’s work is the cast of renegade figurines that she so tenderly coaxed into form. Harlequins, acrobats, dancers and winged creatures can be encountered pirouetting, leaping and soaring through space. Static moments are imbued in the many figures found sweetly sleeping in custom-made beds, or engaged in some form of devotional practice, such as meditation or prayer. Many figurines have brightly painted hands, worn like coloured gloves; others wear elaborate headpieces, as if signalling some kind of existential burden. A number of early works echo a modernist tradition, with refined forms and polished veneers; however, Janet’s sculptures more commonly had a deliberately crude finish, as if channelling the prehistoric artefacts carved by our ancestors in stone, wood and bone. A timeless desire to reach into the ancient past is underscored in the small wooden figurine, Untitled (Me in 3000BC) (1983).

As pointed out by Declan McGonagle in his catalogue essay, through Janet’s work, we can view humans as part of an inclusive longer story, and it is this “reservoir of meaning” that she drew on to make work. We find a reliquary of cultural references – from Hindu and Celtic deities, Christian iconology and African tribal art, to medieval mythology, Mexican folk art and the carnivalesque – often channelled through the symbolic creation of animal forms, most prominently, dogs, birds, donkeys and bulls. These creatures helped the artist to cultivate a rich and unique vocabulary, in which interior discoveries, transformations and emotions conversed with societal behaviours and codes. McGonagle also comments on the “space between” inhabited by these creatures, generating tension between “the tamed and untamed”, the domestic and the wild, the pious and the profane – between ‘dog’ and ‘wolf’. As described in another text by friend and fellow artist, Alice Maher, Janet assembled a “human/animal/bestiary/tribe that is truly hers and hers alone”.

A master sculptor with seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of materiality, craft and form, Janet was also an exquisite painter and drawer, as demonstrated in the vast array of 2D works vibrantly reproduced in this book. A particularly striking series of painted works on paper from 1996 – including In a Corner, Cigarette Abstinence and It was Transparent Too – call to mind the erotic expressionism of contemporaneous female artists like Marlene Dumas.

The opening and closing lines of the book are rightfully reserved for Janet. Her artist’s note is among the most meaningful I’ve encountered on the cultivation of simplicity in art and in life. She describes travel as giving her a “curious insight into different ways of doing things; of mending the un-mendable, of intuitive thinking, cutting corners with acute intelligence, of getting by with admirable inventiveness, of superb craftmanship and ancient tradition and celebration.” There are few things more magical than hearing an artist discuss what their materials mean to them. For the following statement alone, this book is a gift to young artists across the world:

“I love sculpture. I love the air it needs around it, the space it takes up, the inherent sensuality. I love the dreaming up of where and how it will breathe that air, the theatrics of installing. I love wood for its human warmth and the figure for its closeness to me. I also love wax for its sadness, paper and cardboard for what they are, clay for its malleability and fragility, sponge for its ridiculousness and papier-mâché for its poverty. Colour, drawing, paint, textures, masks – animal and not, painted and otherwise, help me find an answer in the search for my own truth, anonymity and the universal.”

It is difficult to imagine a history of Irish sculpture without Janet Mullarney’s unique and rebellious contribution. Indeed, when commissioning articles for VAN’s sculpture-themed 100th issue (March/April 2020), a feature on Janet’s work was one of my main priorities. The published conversation between Janet and Belfast-based artist, John Rainey, is an absolute delight, rendered all the more poignant as we learned of her death a few weeks later.1 In this interview, she referred to Degas’ Little Dancer (1880-1) as “extraordinary, like something that had been born thousands of years ago and would go on forever.” Clearly, Janet recognised the importance of this catalogue raisonné in helping to consolidate and celebrate her important legacy long into the future. Such foresight and retrospection reverberate in her closing remarks on the last page, in which she tenderly asserts: “this publication has confirmed the sense of my life and I am proud of it.”

Joanne Laws is Features Editor of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet.

Janet Mullarney by Catherine Marshall & Mary Ryder (Eds.) is available from Irish Academic Press.

1 ‘Staging Space: A Conversation Between John Rainey and Janet Mullarney’.