Michael Mulcahy

Northern works

Irish painter Michael Mulcahy, born 1952 near Cork, came to Townsville in 1984, following his participation as invited artist in the 5th Biennale of Sydney. He travelled the North extensively, stayed on an aboriginal reserve near Cairns, and also visited the Sepik River region in Papua New Guinea.

During this time Mulcahy produced a remarkable number of paintings, using Townsville as a base from where to work. A selection of these Northern Works went on show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne, and Gary Anderson Gallery, Sydney, in 1984 and 1985 respectively.

Recently, a further selection, mainly of watercolours but also of some larger canvases in acrylic, was shown in Townsville. The exhibition was curated by Ross Searle, director of the Pare Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville, and will be toured to Ipswich, Rockhampton, Mackay and the Gold Coast by the Regional Gallery Association of Queensland, over the next months.

Mulcahy's paintings are vivid, colourful, generous in design, and strong in their emotional appeal. In his best works, he achieves a stunning impact through the simplicity and condensation of the pictorial statements, and a very personal way of amalgamating aboriginal symbolism with his own, Irish-based repertoire of mythical images.

His ability to "feel" himself into other cultural environments is also documented in the Berlin series of 1985-86, which reflect the claustrophobic atmosphere of the divided city (indeed a contrast program to the Northern Works).

From an art-critical point of view, Mulcahy's works are interesting in two aspects particularly. The first one is that of the (pseudo-) originality of the so-called "synthetic" (vs. "analytical") expressionism, to which Mulcahy undoubtedly belongs. The second one is the aspect of (in this case aboriginal) image appropriation.

There is little need to stress the point that both aspects are problematic, far beyond Mulcahy's work. It is more rewarding to ask why the paintings, in spite of this, still seem to ''work". In respect of "synthetic" expressionism one has to point out that the distinction is an art-critical device, and should not be used in a normative sense for art practice.

As to appropriation, I think one has to take the artist's interests and intentions into account (as far as that is possible). In Mulcahy's case, the driving interests seem to be curiosity, search for adventure, moreover genuine compassion and the old yearning for Truth, rather than a display of white cultural superiority or well-meaning paternalism.