Thérèse Mulgrew is a fascinating artist, who has carefully crafted her own unique and entirely contemporary take on still-life painting from her base in Chicago, Illinois. Much of her work features intimate scenes such as someone mid-daydream or lighting their morning cigarette. These private moments hold a story. One which we can ourselves create and imagine whilst admiring the work.
This year, Mulgrew has been busy creating her most recent series, based off an essay she wrote in her 20s. Each painting in the series tells a narrative, told with bold colours and oil paints. It makes sense that Mulgrew has a love for cinema, as her paintings act as vivid stills which could be pulled straight out of a Sean Baker film. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the age of 28 until Mulgrew began teaching herself to paint, resulting in an entirely personal and creative style. Mulgrew has been chosen for both group and solo exhibitions at galleries such as MEY in California. We had the pleasure to speak to her, discussing her work, inspiration, and artistic journey.
Hello Thérèse, its great to be speaking with you! Congratulations on your recent exhibitions, both at SENS gallery in Hong Kong, and MEY in Los Angeles. Could you tell us a bit about these shows and how they came to be?
Hi! I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you about my work. Both galleries found me and reached out to me via Instagram. That’s how most opportunities have happened for me actually. I was a part of MEY’s first group exhibition when they opened last year and enjoyed working with them so much that we decided to do a solo show this past November.
All the paintings I’ve shown over the last 6 months are part of my most recent series which, when viewed collectively, represent a larger narrative and when broken up, seem more like momentary snap shots of intimate moments. Without getting into specifics, the narrative was inspired by an essay I wrote in my twenties that delves into a 24 hour period of my life at the time and explores themes of loneliness vs solitude vs human connection and what it all means when you’re young and grasping for meaning.
What is your history as a painter and artist? Has artistic expression always been important to you, and what is it about painting which attracts you?
I grew up in a family of painters but didn’t pick up a brush until I was 28. That said, I’ve always been creative and sought different ways to express that - through dance, writing, fashion, event production, etc. In the beginning, I was sort of drawn to painting because I felt a desire to work with my hands and make something physical and then when I started, it just felt like home and became almost an addiction. I immediately felt that I had so much I wanted to say and express through the medium.
Your work seems to take act as a modern perspective of still-life, which is a form with a long history. Do you consciously approach painting with a modern perspective, or did this happen naturally?
I suppose it happened naturally. I’m very inspired by classical still life, nostalgia, and timelessness but I’m also a self-taught painter so I think that’s why my technique feels more modern and contemporary.
There also seems to be a focus on intimacy, with many of your paintings capturing scenes in their most intimate moments. What is it about intimacy or vulnerability which you find interesting artistically?
To be honest, I’m not really sure but it’s definitely been a consistent theme for my creative expression. When I was younger, I used to take a lot of photos and I loved to capture my friends when they weren’t looking or the way the sun hit the curtains in my bedroom or some one’s hand resting on the kitchen table. Then in my twenties I started writing a lot of creative nonfiction essays that illustrated these small, seemingly meaningless moments in my life but were still somehow drenched in emotion and tension for me. So that curiosity just kind of continued into my paintings.
Painting is also a solitary practice by nature. Is there something about the stillness and intimacy of painting itself which brings out these characteristics in your work?
I think it probably does. I spend a lot of time alone which I really love but it can be really challenging at times as well. This most recent series is extremely influenced by that solitary experience. But I also really love people and I love to celebrate relationships and connection in my work as well. I think you can see that in a lot of my past series and I’m hoping to explore that more in my next series too.
I was also wondering if you were inspired by cinema at all. It seems much of your work has a rough storyline, and is quite cinematic in its presentation. Is this a valid observation?
Yes! I love when people come to this conclusion on their own - it makes me feel like I’ve been successful in attempting to do when I set out to do. I’ve definitely been inspired by cinema and in my past two series I even collaborated with my dear friend, Austin Vesely, who is an extremely talented filmmaker. I approached him with this idea that I wanted to make a series of paintings that felt like a short film and he helped me to shoot, light, and even direct the models to evoke certain emotions for the images.
Speaking of film, could you tell us some of your favourite movies of all time? Or some that youve watched recently, and we shouldn’t miss?
I have so many and they often change. Recently I’ve actually been on a kick rewatching a lot of my favourites including: Melancholia, The Big Chill, 20th Century Women, Worst Person in the World, Call Me By Your Name, and The Great Beauty.
The large-scale format of your paintings contrasts with the detail-oriented subjects you portray, from cigarettes on an ashtray to cocktails, to food or faces. They seem to draw the viewer in. I dont want to sound cheeky, but does size matter in this case?
I think size does matter! Not that one is better than the other - just in that it can really effect a viewer’s experience. I love making large-scale paintings because I get to really focus in on details and I love the drama of how these larger than life scenes can almost take over, becoming an extension of your space. However, lately, I’ve also been excited about making these intimate mini paintings. They’ve been a really nice change of pace and I also think the small works hold their own kind of magic. It just depends on the kind of relationship you’re looking to have with a painting.
You often work with a really distinctive and bold colour palette; would you say this reflects your personality and attitude towards life, or does the act of painting bring out a different side of you?
I don’t know that I would describe my personality as “bold” or “colourful”. But the work definitely reflects my style and, on top of that, they are somewhat autobiographical reflecting different eras of my life - some of which have been rather dark (Room 126 series) and other times when I felt really alive and flirtatious (red series), or times when I’ve been more reflective or solitary (this most recent series). But the paintings can also bring out a different side of me and my fantasies - for example, I’m not a smoker but I paint a lot of cigarettes. The paintings allow me to be a cooler version of myself. (Laughs)
This may seem a vague question, but I am really interested in how you find inspiration for each project. They each seem to have their own distinct character. Is it a specific idea which inspires each project or is it more nuanced and intangible?
I’ve already touched on this a bit but yes, the last two series were inspired by specific narratives and eras in my life. Before that, the work was definitely a bit more nuanced - influenced more by a theme I wanted to explore or a specific feeling I wanted to express. The red series, for example, is about sensuality and intimacy - the paintings are meant to flirt with you. Whereas the most recent series attempts to tell a specific story.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. As a final question, do you have any plans for the near future or any projects in the works you would like to tell us about?
I’ve had a very busy autumn and winter and now I actually don’t have anything coming up for awhile! Which honestly is exciting for me because I feel like 2023 was so busy that I didn’t actually have much time to feel inspired and come up with new creative ideas. I’m excited to take the next 6 months to experiment a little bit.