By Sabina Clarke
When I met fine artist Catherine Mulligan at her Northern Liberties studio, I was astonished by how strikingly pretty she is—something unexpected based on her mesmeric and unsettling self-portrait featured in the current Women and Biography exhibit at Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, PA now through June 1st.
Mulligan, considered one of the most promising of the emerging Philadelphia artists grew up in Nutley, New Jersey and comes from a uniquely artistic background,
Her mother Ellen is a ceramic artist and her father Gerard Mulligan, now semi-retired, was a comedy writer for talk show host David Letterman and often appeared in comedy skits on the Letterman show while her older brother Kevin is a philosopher and writer eyeing a possible career in academia.
For a young woman barely out of her twenties (she is 27 years-old), Mulligan is on a fast track. Her work is in the permanent collections of Woodmere Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and she has exhibited in Philadelphia at the Trust Us, Trust Gallery, the Philadelphia Sketch Club, the Acorn Club, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Main Line Art Center and in Harrisburg at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
Awards include the Hobson Pittman Prize in 2008, the Philadelphia Governor’s Award in 2009, the Elizabeth Greenfield Foundation Grant in 2012 and the Maybelle Longstreet Prize in 2013.
Mulligan, who describes her style as representational, is drawn to the inherent dichotomies and contradictions in life that find expression in her art. There are many layers to her paintings. Her self-portrait at Woodmere, far from being a completely accurate physical likeness rather captures her shifting and conflicting emotions, “It is a chronicle of me as I age but it is more about capturing real emotions; so it is about aging and expectations I had about myself as a child and how they seem now. I associate what I am wearing with childhood. There is femininity about it but it is also kind of stark and grotesque—that kind of contradiction always interested me. So, I think the emotion of that self-portrait is kind of sad and troubled but it is also kind of funny and absurd. I want it to be complex in a similar way where you have this mixed reaction to it.”
Mulligan always knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age, “When I was younger, I was a bit shy and I guess I felt more comfortable expressing myself this way by making things and showing these things to people because making art is a sort of solitary activity.”
Later, as a teenager she took some art classes at the Community Center in Nutley and then at 18, she moved to Philadelphia to study at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PAFA. In 2009 she got her certificate from PAFA and in 2010 she graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Fine Arts.
Her influences are the old masters including Jusepe de Ribera, Constable, Chardin, Rembrandt, Frans Hals and de Hooch. Of the contemporary artists she likes Julie Heffernan, Sigal Tsbari, Justin Mortimer, Catherine Murphy, Ann Gale and Joan Mitchell.
She is happy with the recognition she is getting now because “financially, it is difficult to paint.” So to help pay the bills, she works as a hostess in a restaurant when she is not painting.
Her upcoming shows include another juried show at Woodmere Art Museum opening June 1st and a Two-Person Show at PAFA Alumni Gallery opening in December 2014.
Catherine Mulligan is represented by FAN Gallery in Old City Philadelphia.