Jill Mulleady’s paintings are brimming with magnetism. Her works are made up of hymn-like elements: the beautiful and the creepy, the serene and the violent coexist in phantasmagorical settings, with flashes of magical realism. Everyday life and elaborate imaginary worlds coexist without conflict, while allusions to historical painting enter into dialogue with images drawn from both popular culture and personal experiences, creating a strange sensation of merging and multiplying different temporalities.
We met in Berlin, at the Schinkel Pavillon the day before the opening of her exhibition You Me, in duo with Henry Taylor. The exhibition manifests the link between two artists from different generations and backgrounds, in which expressive figurative painting and an incisive reference to art history act as a common denominator. You Me explores the representation of bodies, the relationship between artist and subject, spectator and representation and, ultimately, the intersection of the public and private spheres. This conversation also includes historical works on paper by Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz and Marcel Duchamp that shed new light on the scenes. It can be visited until 19 May 2024 and I highly recommend it to anyone who will be experiencing the Berlin springtime.
Between staircases and spotlights, I talked with Jill about various topics, such as narratives and synchronicities. Regarding the last questions, I already will spoil that her art studio in Paris was the childhood home of the symbolist art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans.
Jeanne, 2023
Who would you say you are?
Well, (laughs) that's a complicated one, for me especially. I'm Jill Mulleady, fourth generation Argentinian. I wasn't born there, I was born in Montevideo during the military dictatorship. We came back to Buenos Aires during the democracy. My parents are from different origins so I have an Irish name, native American blood (Mapuche), also French, very early German immigration from 1800s also. When I finished school I moved around; I lived in Paris, London, Brussels, Los Angeles and now I live in Paris again. I'm also Swiss. So it's pretty complicated.
How do you think your multi-cultural identity has influenced your work?
I guess the the eclectic [reality] of my origins would be conflicting to the idea of identifying me with one specific culture. I would actually not identify with one but with all of my origins, which makes me harder to classify.
Who do you make your work for first?
Interesting question - I think there's not one rule on that, it depends on the work I'm making. But I think it's for painting itself. It’s more for a conversation, a whole network. It's not for one specific person.
How do you deal with the reception of your work?
I've been a painter all my life and I never did it to please or to have anything back, like gratifications. So if people don't like it or like it, it doesn't really affect me.
You described your creative process as the conception of a painting as film material. How important are films, how do you structure your stories and how do you choose the elements that make them up?
I like the idea of film like the concept of, as Tarkovsky would say Sculpting in Time. Paintings are atemporal, they are like a time capsule image. And I think when I, as a viewer, see a painting that really moves me, there is a time that goes through the painting. So it's not something frozen captured by the eye, like a snapshot. There is time in the paintings and there is the time of the gesture of the brushstroke, of the layering and all those things that the painter does on the surface, they make the time inside. A similar thing happens in cinema. It's a completely different medium, but there is also this idea of time.
Solus Locus, 2018
Your work contains juxtapositions between the dreamlike, the surreal, the urban, fictional universes, trash elements and art historical references. Do you choose these antagonistic combinations to convey a specific emotion, such as bewilderment?
This exhibition, for example, is a group of works on the specific theme of the female nude. And it was to question the place of the viewer in front of that topic, which is a great line used through the history of art to develop the language of painting. And it's also the main core of modernism, actually. Because when Duchamp did Nude Descending a Staircase that's in the show, downstairs, he broke the idea of figure painting. And that's when things moved into Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. So for this exhibition, I think I wasn't looking for bewilderment, but more to question the viewer, how they position themselves in front of a very seductive surface. That's why I created this sculpture also. The exhibition title is You Me so it’s really about the relationship between the painter and the subject and then what's the place of the viewer? Because the viewer is the one who's going to actually reflect and evolve the language at the end.
How do you approach the creation of imaginary worlds and the incorporation of autobiographical elements in your works?
I don't make a difference, it’s as everything comes to me. I'm more in the receptive side of things and I filter what would be relevant for the painting I'm doing. The narrative element normally is not important, it's more the formal aspect and the colours and the mood. But if it comes from a dream, or from an encounter, or from culture, I think it all meets at the same level: the surface of the painting.
How do you find the works of art history you want to quote? Is it a direct search or is a more casual encounter?
It's not just a casual encounter but there's always a spark of chance. Painting is a language. And I learn it by looking at what happened in painting, how things have been done through times and why. When I intuitively find there's a conversation that has been sort of jumped, forgotten, broken or lost because of history etc. and it makes sense to bring it back, it's almost as if I hear voices. Sometimes when I look at a painting, it's calling me to get in there and bring it back into a new context. It's like desire.
The duo exhibition You Me with Henry Taylor highlights the relationship between two artists from different generations and backgrounds. How did it come about?
I met Nina, the director of Schinkel Pavillon in Los Angeles, and she was interested in meeting Henry who is a a good friend of mine. So I took her to his studio. And then Nina saw us, saw our friendship and our way to relate to painting together, and she proposed us almost immediately to do a show.
How do your individual styles influence each other and how do they complement each other in the dynamics of the exhibition?
I would leave the viewer to say that.
Jill Mulleady, Stairs / Nude Descending, 2024. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Neu - Photo: Frank Sperling, 2024
How do you see yourself now, artistically and personally? Do you know where are you going?
It's like an intuition, the feeling that I'm on a path that resonates with an integrity in what I'm doing. I know immediately if it's right because things start to align. So again it's about being receptive for the things that I need to do because I don't know why I do it. It's like I have to do it.
What are you like as an art consumer?
I consume a lot of painting by visiting shows, especially museum shows. I've seen a lot of contemporary art, but I'm always much more drawn into seeing a good retrospective of an artist. I have curiosity and desire to understand female artists like, for example Berthe Morisot or Camille Claudel, who were female artists addressing a subject that was just in the canon of male, with a lot of courage.
To finish this talk, I would like to ask you about three last highlights.
Book to recommend
Yes! I'm reading Ecrits sur LArt [by] Joris-Karl Huysmans. My studio, as a coincidence, is where he was born. I was working on this specific show very much and looking at this painting of Degas, The Rape. And adding on coincidences, someone gave me this book, there's an essay about Degas and how he used them crudely as subjects for his pastels and oils - it's fascinating.
Someone who you admire
My daughter Olympia.
Three issues you care deeply about
I care deeply about how we treat our planet, the environment. I care also on how we treat the children in our planet, and the access to education. And I despise the hypocrisy in the way the world deals with those two things.
Swan Lake on the Radio, 2022