Contributed by Margaret McCann / Catherine Mulligan’s captivatingly repellent “Bad Girls Club” at Tara Downs takes irreverent aim at American culture. Creatures of habitual selfies, her satirical painted ladies contend with the pressures of appearance. They would be at home in a John Waters film, where viewing likewise shifts between distaste, amusement, and aesthetics. Mulligan frames each painting with angular, industrial-looking signage that doesn’t detract but, like Polyester’s scratch-and-sniff option, adds a contrasting layer of interest. A zombie-esque girl in Nocturne 2 peeks at us over her shoulder with an intrusive blend of seduction and complicity, a boundary violation that almost breaks the fourth wall. Her grin, like that of Chucky’s bride or Otto Dix’s “Lady in Mink,” portends the unpleasant. But unlike Dix’s fallen women, survivors in post-World War I Germany, Mulligan’s anti-heroines are vapid consumers of leisure.
In Clubbers 2, a pair pose with a city skyline backdrop, owning the public sphere the way Tamara de Lempicka’s stylish women asserted modernist vigor. The right one’s ungainly physique and snakelike arabesque conjures Freudian fear, like Paul Cadmus’s Lust. Her severe rhinoplasty could be the “after” version of her companion’s unadulterated proboscis. Coy hand on chest and inelegantly clasped thighs have the amusing inauthenticity and nostalgia of outdated fashion poses. The contrived posture of de Lempicka’s women embodied the Art Deco dynamism that brought cubist fragmentation into order, but Mulligan’s doleful lexicon – irregular shapes, uneasy anatomy, bruised darks, and cadaverous renderings – discourages optimism.
In Bridge and Tunnel, besties in Times Square strike a pose. They beam with incongruent, grotesque confidence amplified by shiny clothing and hazy, disorienting light that multiplies their delusions. Like the Bogdanoff brothers, swollen lips and bulging cheekbones turn individuals into caricatures of themselves. Slow-motion twisting forms echo the disquiet of Matthias Grunewald’s form language. As torsos turn towards distant LED billboards, moments of refined realism on metallic fabric periodically fix attention. Beneath a surface pattern conveying some of the anxiety of Louise Bourgeois’ webby structures, the solid geometrics of Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridges emerge.
Las Vegas Mansion initially reads like a beginner’s messy charcoal rendering. But architectural distortion filters through shimmering light into deft and delicate chiaroscuro, displaying skill Mulligan probably honed at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Indiana University. As in Robert Delaunay’s cubist Eiffel Towers, comprehending how everything falls into place is satisfying, despite a creepiness like that Vincent Price purveyed. Reflections abound, evoking the hall of mirrors Mulligan’s females exist in, the McMansion as insubstantial as a house of cards.
Mulligan grew up in North Jersey, and the star of Nouveau Riche looks like someone who auditioned for the local Real Housewives franchise – or whom I may have seen near the Atlantic City Boardwalk during the four years I lived nearby, not knowing whether she was there to revel or work. From inside a fancy, casino-like interior, a straightforward, vacuous gaze atop a vampy stance conveys pathetic unawareness of aging. But Ivan Albright gloominess is buoyed by the levity of camp. While dense darks resemble those of baroque painters like de Ribera, without heroic narrative or powerful anatomy Mulligan’s people are lugubriously absurd. R. Crumb-like folly is embedded in painting’s highbrow expectation.
Unlike the bevy of lowbrow-inspired figuration in New York galleries these days, cartoony and kitschy qualities are skillfully woven into structure, surpassing illustration. Negative spaces squeeze anatomy uncomfortably, inciting the expressionist ambivalence toward human power that Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Egon Schiele communicated. Sporting the inverted feminism of female Trumpers who probably admire the daring of Lauren Boebert, one of the two babes on a football field in Blondes pulls a gun from her crotch. Her twin’s bold pose mimics the fierceness “Top Model” popularized – as though projecting attitude meant models wouldn’t be objectified for their beauty. Mulligan’s ironic women may ask whether lip-service to agency is simply pointless assertion, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In Interior, Mulligan contrasts a derelict bar with artful formal infrastructure. Careful application of one-point perspective rationality to a pointless motif is laughable. Yet complex figure-ground relationships and rich calibrations of tone and texture communicate the serious pleasures of painting. Above the vanishing point a sign advertising low-end beer emerges dreamily, dramatically, sarcastically from shadows and grime.
Ass repulses as it satirizes internet exhibitionism. Dank, greasy skin the color and texture of burnt bratwurst recalls Grunewald’s diseased ergotism or Dix’s trenches. Possessing the opposite of sex appeal, the image is apotropaic, driving erotic malevolence away. Again Mulligan makes her case, as do Cindy Sherman and Lisa Yuskavage, that any unattractive motif will serve painting’s task of imaginatively and agreeably fortifying a rectangle into a meditative object.
In blue jeans along a road, Hobo’s more casual protagonist is less concerned with hotness. She shares a laugh, though it’s probably not at herself, as ours is. While Frankenstein’s monster, also made from unrelated body parts, had enough self-awareness to realize he was “hideous,” Mulligan’s composites are so eager to present themselves that they bypass identity – a common predicament one sees online today. Like John Currin’s females, social commentary attends her portraits of cluelessness. Mulligan doesn’t bear the same burden of misogyny his work has carried, and focusing on other women’s looks may itself deride that female propensity. Like Brueghel, Daumier, Ensor, Guston and other artists through the ages, Mulligan insists that cynical humor wrought beautifully or cleverly enough – content adequately balanced to form – justifies ridicule. At a time when people seem too “full of passionate intensity,” as W. B. Yeats cautioned, Mulligan’s ugly, honest, funny, and original take is refreshing.
“Catherine Mulligan: Bad Girls Club,” Tara Downs, 424 Broadway, Floor 3, New York, NY. Through October 14, 2023.
About the author: Painter and art writer Margaret McCann teaches at the Art Students League. She has shown her work at Antonia Jannone in Milan and been reviewed in La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera and the Huffington Post. She edited The Figure (Skira/Rizzoli 2014) for the New York Academy of Art and has written reviews for Painters’ Table and Art New England.