Cartoon nudes, hand painted baseball cards, and gobs of blood frozen mid-ooze. These are some of the elements that comprise Mark Mulroney’s lexicon. The artist’s work suggests a fondness for pop surrealism. Like that movement, Mulroney was raised in Southern California and later migrated eastward; born in Orange County, he now makes his home Syracuse, New York.
Mark himself is soft spoken and amiable. He emanates the laid-back domestic vibe that upstate New York life tends to engender in artists and creatives. When we caught up he was hanging around the house battling a cold. He was variously laconic and excitable, sometimes wry, always generous with anecdotes. We spoke about life up north, illustration versus painting, and the true nature of Batman for this exclusive studio visit and Q&A.
Photography by Eve Alpert.
How long have you been in Syracuse?
This is our fourth year in Syracuse, and before that we had four in Rochester. My wife finished her PhD at Rochester, and then got a job at the university here. She’s the director of the special collections and rare books library.
Does the area affect the kind of work you make?
Absolutely. I won’t make a total declarative statement but I’ll make one anyway. I never painted naked people before I came here, because in Southern California we basically lived on the beach. I saw bodies all the time and I got used to it. Then we moved here where six months out of the year people are covered with parkas. All of a sudden I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. I started painting all these naked people because I never see anybody.
Every time I move my color palate changes. I’m working on these paintings that have bright colors and flowers just because the winter is so gray and bleak. I don’t want to work with gray when it’s all gray outside. I want to see some color.
You spend a lot of time inside. Are you a rigorous worker?
Yeah. My dad was a crazy worker and we had a lot of rules in our household. If you woke up saying “Mom, I feel sick,” she would say, “You’ll feel better when you get to school.”
My dad supposedly passed a kidney stone at his desk and passed out on the spot. One of his coworkers rattled him and he woke up and kept going [laughs]. I’m not that crazy, but I like making stuff. I try to not work on Saturdays because otherwise my wife and I spend no time together. She’s a worker too.
“Putting paintings together is akin to writing poetry. You’re looking to capture a feeling versus a very concrete idea.”
You have a show coming up at Mixed Greens on April 30th.
Right. I’ve been with Mixed Greens for close to fifteen years. I got out of grad school, and this woman who worked there named Eleanor Williams saw my work. Mixed Greens was just starting out—they weren’t even a gallery then. I was right out of grad school, so I would have signed on with anyone just to get things rolling.
Why “Yellow Bikini?”
Because it’s optimistic, and in the winter you need something optimistic.
You're both an artist and an illustrator. Can you speak to your illustration work?
You know Barbara Kruger? When I look at her work, it’s only about one thing. She’ll have a slogan—I think one of her most famous slogans is “I shop therefore I am.” It’s ominous. It’s about the downsides of consumerist culture. That’s illustration for me. Putting paintings together is more akin to writing poetry, where you kind of get a sense of the subject and you’re looking to capture a feeling versus a very concrete idea. The illustration work I do is more: get the idea. Make it look seductive so that somebody might want to buy it.
I always go back and forth. I’ve got boxes of scrap wood for when I get tired of working on flat stuff all the time. I’m a trash picker. If I’m walking home and I see that somebody threw out a chair that’s got nice legs, or some kind of decorative element, I’ll bring it home, smash it up, and keep the pieces around the house. All those sculptures are scrap wood. I glue it together and put a face on it. It’s nothing that I wasn’t doing when I was four, five years old. We always had wood, Legos, that stuff.
The Idols... are they wood and paint?
I see a reference to Oceanic sculpture there.
Yeah. I’m a huge fan. I hate when people use the word “primitive” in relation to that type of work, because it does a disservice to the amazing design. You walk around MoMA and you see all this work, especially with Picasso and you go, “How is it that he’s in MoMA and all of his inspirations are in the Natural History Museum?”
As a basis for cartooning, [indigenous sculpture] does so much with the figure, with exaggeration, like these amazing, simple little twists to make a spine come alive. I’ve had these books out on my desk for the last six months: African Sculpture, Oceanic Sculpture, the Native Americans of the North West Coast. I never know how to say the groups’ names, and I’m going to sound like some obnoxious white dude even trying, but the work is fantastic. There’s an Ed Ruscha quote, it goes: “All art is just an homage to things you like.” I think it’s true. I like comic books, I like Batman, I like naked ladies, so I paint naked ladies. I like African sculpture, so I make some.
When you’re using a character from pop culture, do you approach it as homage? Or pastiche? Or maybe just simple reproduction?
I would say its homage. I get the sense that if I want to use a character and it’s not working, it’s because I don’t understand it enough. Batman I can use, but Spiderman I can’t. Somehow I don’t own Spiderman enough. In Southern California we weren’t too far from Disneyland. I hated Disneyland. So I kind of feel like I know Disney characters well enough to use them.
The Batman stuff is all homage. I like the fact that throughout his lifetime he’s been super dark and then totally silly. You can’t look at the 1960’s Batman TV show and Christian Bale’s recent Batman and go “That’s the same character.” I mean, one of them’s dancing and the other one is throwing people off roofs. He also had Batgirl, and Batgirl was pretty sexy, so you could do stuff with that.
There’s a great sense of humor in your approach to sexuality and gore. Can you speak to that?
Do you know the band Gwar? That’s a band that embraces the fun of over-the-top violence and bizarre sex acts, but you don’t get the feeling that “Oh, this is dangerous or gross,” or “I shouldn’t be looking at this.” I feel like a great tool to disarm the scariness of violence or the fear around sex is just: make it funny. It’s hard to take anything seriously with art, because art is so stupid. If you want to make a change, maybe making a painting and selling it in Chelsea isn’t the answer.
You and your wife—not only do you collaborate on paintings, but you have a band. Do you guys still play together?
Yeah, we still play together in the basement.
“I feel like my work would be better if I didn't know the rules of composition.”
Do you have any recordings?
No [laughs] sorry—it makes me laugh. I’m a drummer but I started playing bass because I have no idea how to play it. I like the fact that we have no knowledge of music. I would love to be able to go back and not do art school, because I feel that my work would be better if I didn’t actually know the rules of composition and line quality and color.
The joy of amateurism.
Yes, absolutely. You come up with your own solutions instead of relying on your education. There are very few three year olds who have had an art education but their drawings always look so fresh and interesting and sincere. How do you capture that sincerity? How do you strip away your education so that you can actually communicate something meaningful instead of just regurgitating your education?