Open Frequency 2010: Michael Mulvihill selected by Paul Stone

Open Frequency 2010: Michael Mulvihill selected by Paul Stone Michael Mulvihill, The End of History (Francis Fukuyama), 2008. Graphite on paper. 15cm x 14cm

Paul Stone profiles the work of Michael Mulvihill

Michael Mulvihill’s drawings are weighted with a sense of menace; his landscapes, urban scenes and even his portraits are all potential harbingers of threat, of disasters waiting to happen and evil deeds waiting to be done. The sense of foreboding is exacerbated by the obsessively worked surfaces of his work. Individual images are the result of a process of heavily worked graphite pencil on cartridge paper, often built up through a process of repeated erasure and overdrawing, leaving a series of ‘ghosted’ images below the ‘final’ image. This successive rubbing out, inscribing into the surface of the paper itself, and the dull sheen of graphite all combine to create images that imply a world that, in the artist’s own words, is ’in the process of dissolving’.

Earlier works were based on photographs of the urban and rural landscapes of Mulvihill’s native Tyneside and Wearside. These were a response to the artist’s childhood memories of the late 1970s and 1980s and the dying days of the Cold War, with the ever-present threat of nuclear war and the all-too-real fear provoked by nuclear accidents at the power plants at Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania, USA, 1979) and Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986). These events inspired the works in the Transparent Radiation exhibition (2006-7), which took its title from the song of the same name by the Red Crayola Band (from the album Parable of Arable Land, 1967).

Mulvihill’s 2007 residency at The Contemporary Artist Centre, North Adams, Massachusetts, USA saw his work take a different, more introspective direction. The ‘Witch Vortex’ (2007) series of drawings take their name from that of a shaman who lives in the mountains that surround North Adams, and for Mulvihill the name evoked a sense of primeval disquiet. Using the town of North Adams as his subject, the drawings suggest a supernatural menace and a ‘sublime disturbance’ that references traditions of the American Gothic horror and ghost story.

A return to the USA in 2008 for a residency in Chicago saw Mulvihill’s work revisit concerns of global menace. The ‘The End of History (Chicago)’ (2008) series depicts the city’s Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers as if they were the remains of a lost civilisation, devoid of human presence, like a scene from countless disaster movies. With their angular composition and stark contrast between dark and light reminiscent of that of Modern Abstract painting, the drawings merge the notion of ‘The End of Painting’ with the end of the world and the failure of utopian ideals.

The series also includes portraits of individuals from, and associated with, the RAND Corporation think-tank. Intellectuals working for RAND applied rationalised economic models to a variety of situations, ranging from tactics to win a nuclear war to creating incentives for workers in corporations. The series includes portraits of Francis Fukayama, author of The End of History (1989) and The Last Man (1992), Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War (1960) and inventor of the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine, and physicist John von Neumann, devisor of Game Theory and the implosion trigger for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The latter two individuals are thought to have been the inspiration for the lead character in the film Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964). The seeming innocuousness of these portraits is chilling in that they reveal nothing of the destructive and invidious effect their subjects have had on the formation of the modern world.

Through his drawings, Mulvihill explores the relationship and effect of global events on personal experience, creating an intimate biography from both the ‘borrowed’ stories and landscapes of others as well as those from his own history. As with artists including Gerhard Richter and Luc Tymans, he shares an interest in how a seemingly banal photographic image can in fact be loaded with a sense of fear and dislocation, imbuing them with an existential anxiety in the process.

Paul Stone, September 2009

Artist's biography

Michael Mulvihill was born in Jarrow in 1973 and currently lives in Gateshead. He studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee (1992-95), and Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne (2001-02). In summer 2007 he was artist-in-residence at Incubate, Chicago, and The Contemporary Artist Centre, North Adams, Massachusetts, USA. He returned to Incubate for a further residency and a solo exhibition, Energy Flash, in 2008.

His solo exhibition Transparent Radiation was at Art Gene, Barrow-in-Furness, and Waygood Gallery & Studios, Newcastle upon Tyne (2006-07), during which he also participated in the Waygood Gallery & Studios Harker Herald billboard project. His work was selected for the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2009 and the group show Brick by Brick, Foundry Lane Studios, Newcastle upon Tyne (2009-10). In 2010 Mulvihill will have a solo show at Waygood @ Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne.

About Paul Stone

Paul Stone has been based in Newcastle upon Tyne since 1986, moving to the city to study Fine Art at Northumbria University, both on the BA and MA courses. Having exhibited as an artist since 1990, he curated his first exhibition at Newcastle’s (now defunct) Zone photographic gallery in 1993. His involvement in other projects includes time as a Co-Director and Curator of Waygood Gallery and Studios, Newcastle (1997-2001), Newcastle Curator for the LMN (Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle), a cross-regional project consisting of exhibitions in each of the three cities (2000), Curatorial Advisor to HART, Hull (2001), co-curator and organiser of Vane Export (Stockholm, 1999) and Outlanders (Newcastle, 2001) for BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, as part of their B4B pre-opening programme. He was awarded a Crafts Council Spark Plug Award for curatorial research in 2009 and is also an Editorial Production Assistant for a-n The Artists Information Company

Stone has been involved with Vane since the organisation’s foundation in 1997. There are three phases to the history of Vane’s activities. The first consisted of four large-scale annual events acting as an umbrella for a number of diverse exhibitions across the city of Newcastle and the surrounding region (1997-2000). The second was a series of curated exhibitions, often involving working with invited national and international partner curators or galleries (2002-03). Having staged the majority of exhibitions and events up until this point in temporary venues, the third phase was the opening of a permanent gallery space in Newcastle city centre in July 2005. The gallery presents around six exhibitions a year and participates in a number of international art fairs.

Open Frequency keeps you in touch with new developments in contemporary art practice from across the UK. The artists are selected and profiled by leading curators, artists and writers, presenting the work of artists to watch out for over the coming year. Open Frequency represents a forward-looking glance today of the artists who will be setting the agenda tomorrow.