Like a scientist mixing chemical compounds in the lab, or like a child making potions in the kitchen, Jayne-Anne Mulholland combines the most unexpected media in the most untraditional ways to achieve paintings that are alive with color and texture. To say “there are things happening” in her paintings may be more than a figure of speech.
In a show opening March 18, at Alpine Art, Mulholland’s canvases seduce the viewer to look closer. “How does she do that,” you wonder. In a preview glimpse of paintings to be exhibited at Alpine, Mulholland shares information about her unusual process.
Working on gesso-coated canvas, on a horizontal surface, Mulholland combines materials to create happy accidents.
“I love oils, I use oils a lot, but I also add enamels, acrylic and latex paint – anything I can get my hands on,” she explains. Ignoring any rules you may have heard about putting oil on acrylic but never the other way around, Mulholland is fascinated by the curious and beautiful ways these materials combine or repel each other. She stimulates the action, or reaction, with the addition of water, paint thinners, Japan dryer, wood varnish, metallic paints and powders, or pure paint pigment.
“Sometimes I spray vinegar and see what that will do,” she adds. She’s also experimented with household cleaners, taking care not to cause a toxic reaction, and always keeping her studio windows open for cross ventilation.
When the paint is dry, or sometimes when it’s still wet, Mulholland may subtract from the process rather than add. Using a sander, paint thinner, stripper, a butane torch or a heat gun, she removes layers of paint trying not to burn a hole in the canvas. But if that happens? Oh, well, it becomes part of the finished design, a new element of mystery and depth.
The finishing touch is a glaze that creates a shine, as though the abstract colors and textures are under water.
Working on about 10 paintings at the same time, Mulholland uses a drying rack her husband constructed from 2×4 lumber to store the wet paintings while working on others.
The colors and patterns Mulholland achieves with her happy accidents are reminiscent of designs in nature – gem stones, outer space, and the ocean bottom – all things that inspire her. In fact, she compares her relatively quick process of creation to the millions of years of heat, cold, compression and other natural forces that created the beauty she finds in gems and granite.
Mulholland stumbled on her unusual process while an art student at the University of Utah. She put a bit too much linseed oil on a painting and left it for a week. Returning to class, she discovered the oil had shriveled and puckered the paint, creating a textural effect she thought she could never have done on purpose. With kudos from classmates and her instructor, she began her experimentation with other materials to see what else paint could do with just a little encouragement.
“It’s just this interplay of things not mixing together and through that achieving organic lines that I couldn’t reproduce and wouldn’t want to reproduce because I really like my paintings to make themselves. I’m just the vessel. I put them together and see where they go from there,” she says.
That was 2003. “Suddenly I found myself excited about painting,” she says. “You mean I don’t have to control things and that’s OK? I guess I’m really attracted to that because my life is that way. I haven’t been able to control a lot of things. Through my painting I’m beginning to accept that.”
Mulholland has never tired of her process because it is full of surprises. She doesn’t keep notes about how she achieves various effects because she likes to keep guessing. “Even if I’m reinventing the wheel, it’s never the same. It’s a different wheel every time.”
One instructor used the word shaman to describe Mulholland’s creative function in relation to her art and her audience. “A shaman would go into the wilderness and bring out something magical to give to the people to make them well or to change their lives,” she says. “I’m just as mystified as any other viewer to the gallery. I’m trying to tap into an intuitive, even spiritual source.”
Mulholland tries, as much as possible, to use materials with archival quality. But she is more interested in the energy of her work and if it’s going to change over time, that’s just fine with her. “Because my paintings create themselves, if they want to look different 100 years from now, or 300 years from now, then that’s just more of the work speaking for itself and moving and being energetic.”
This collaboration between painter and materials continues to evolve. Mulholland is percolating ideas for incorporating collage in a push-pull adding and subtracting of layers, in much the way you discover the history of old apartment buildings in the multiple layers of old wallpaper. She’d also like to add other chemicals and natural elements to her long list of possible materials; things like tar, or wax, or polished granite.
She regrets never taking a chemistry class in school, but that could happen yet. If there is a line between science and art, it’s a thin one, she believes. Both scientists and artists mix things together to make something new.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.