Suzy O’Mullane has had more than her fair share of tragedy, but she wouldn’t want her work to be seen as mawkish, writes.
For Suzy O’Mullane, like most artists, the act of creating can be a frustrating experience, with the muse sometimes proving a fickle companion. She gives a resigned smile while describing her artistic process.
“I don’t know how anybody can say painting or making art is easy. I’d sometimes prefer to rip out my nails rather than be in the studio,” she says.
“But I just do it. It is a practice and you stick with it. If you don’t do it, you get very discombobulated, I think. It is almost a necessity. Sometimes things just flow. Other times, I’d have pieces for years and I tweak them every now and again and put them away. Then I have a lightbulb moment.”
Some of those moments are on show in the artist’s latest exhibition at the Origin Gallery in Dublin. The title of the show, Random Stars, from Bog to Kahlo, was inspired by a piece O’Mullane wrote during a residency at Cill Rialaig artists’ retreat in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry.
The work featured draws on the concepts of relationships, memory and identity, but for O’Mullane the overarching theme is one of restlessness, and the search for home, especially in the face of loss. O’Mullane’s brother died suddenly two years ago and her mother a year later; travel has been a means of coping with her grief.
“I’ve been, for the want of a better word, escaping, running away,” she says.“After my brother died, I was
invited to Morocco. I have been over and back a lot to New York as well, where I had the use of a studio. I was in France all last summer, and recently again.”
O’Mullane has experienced unimaginable loss in her life; her daughter Róisín died in 2004, and nine months later her husband Chris passed away. While she has addressed this in her art, she is at pains to point out the distinction between art as work and art as therapy.
“There’s a difference. Your subject matter has to be dealt with in a way that makes sense artistically as well. If you want to do art therapy, do art therapy. That wouldn’t be my intention, I just use what I have around me. In the early days when my daughter and husband passed, I would have shut myself away and made work but I wouldn’t have shown it if it wasn’t up to scratch. It has to make sense outside myself as well. All my work wouldn’t be tragic or sad either — a lot of it is very tongue-in-cheek, there is a lot of dark humour. I certainly wouldn’t like anything to be mawkish and self-pitying.”
O’Mullane, who is based in Blackrock, Cork, works through various mediums — painting, drawing, video, performance and writing. Her latest exhibition features distinctive self-portraits based on The Wounded Deer by Frida Kahlo, an artist who she says has inspired her to push the boundaries.
“I would really relate to what she does, where you bring the audience as close as possible to you, almost that they can see into you in a way. A lot of performance art would be like that as well, the closer the audience is brought in, the stronger the art... I’m also thinking about people like [performance artist] Marina Abramovic. There is luminosity in their courage and honesty. I find it very brave. I would try to be brave as well myself.”
While O’Mullane’s work is kept in public and private collections all over the world, commercial success is not something that concerns her too much.
“I get a real buzz from peer approval, that is more important to me. I always feel my shows straddle museum and commercial, even though I have been showing in commercial galleries for the last while. My work isn’t at all commercial, it’s provocative, experiential and autobiographical.”
Random Stars from Bog to Kahlo is at the Origin Gallery, Dublin until April 10