Emily Mullin was born in Santa Monica, CA and studied painting and sculpture at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA and Goldsmiths, University of London, London, UK. Recent exhibitions include solo shows at Jack Hanley Gallery, Tennis Elbow / The Journal Gallery, Lucien Terras and Sunday Takeout, New York, NY and group exhibitions include Jack Hanley Gallery, Mrs., Kate Werble Gallery and Casey Kaplan Gallery, NY, New York. Mullin lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
My recent work stages handmade ceramic vessels bearing live flowers on painted steel shelves. This combination of functional and organic objects floats on the wall as a three-dimensional still life. While the pieces refer to the tradition of still-life painting, they exist somewhere between the flat space of representation and reality. The forms and compositions of each still life celebrate a range of influences alluding to the visual language of worship and desire: the comical width of Mantua court dresses from the 1700s; the choreography and bizarre depiction of women in Busby Berkeley musicals; multi-handled Egyptian unguent vessels used for storing perfume and cosmetics; dancers at the West Indian Day parade in Brooklyn. Sitting on painted steel shelves that reference the cyclorama – that infinite photographic space that dissolves the line between wall and floor – each vessel becomes a character, proudly posing for the viewer. Through a process of hand building and carving clay, each vessel is made with intentional irregularities, emphasizing its uniqueness and assertive presence. A patterned layer of wax resist is applied to each bisqued ceramic piece before it is dipped in white glaze. After the vessel is fired, the wax resist burns away, revealing the color of the raw clay body beneath. The clays range from a deep brown to white, creating an earthy spectrum of color. Motifs from abstract painting (repeated mark making, lines and the grid) have informed the surface of these works. The vegetation further accentuates the fecund aspects of the vases; with them, I am able to extend a universal gesture – the offering of a flower as a conduit for the meaning of a moment: celebration, grief, hope, regeneration.
Hi Emily! Can you tell us a bit about how you became interested in pursuing a career as a visual artist? Do you have any early memories of creative moments or early influences that stand out?
There was a lot of dress up and make believe around the house when I was growing up. My dad is a playwright and my mom is a developmental psychologist and they placed a lot of value on "play time." We would go see theater a lot. I remember as a kid we saw a production of Oklahoma and a live horse was brought out on stage and it totally blew my mind. I think having an art practice is one of the few careers where you can be really playful and also be taken seriously for your ideas. It’s a permissive environment.
You studied painting and sculpture at Mount Holyoke College and Goldsmiths in London. When did you begin to work with clay? How has painting influenced this body of work?
I was feeling a little stuck with the paintings and sculptures I had been making, so I took a continuing-ed ceramics course at LIU Brooklyn in 2014 to mix things up and it was great—self-directed and one of the cheapest options for clay/firing in the city. After that class I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate the medium into my practice. In 2015 there was an unbelievable Morandi show at CIMA and I think it made me think about the still life tradition, relationships between objects, and the intimacy and balance in those painted spaces. It made me want to experiment with the genre.
When did you begin to make the work you are showing currently? What was the initial inspiration to place the vessels on metal shelves?
In the summer of 2016 I had a show at a wonderful project space in Brooklyn called Sunday Takeout run by Kana Togashi and Tetsuji Nakatomi. The painted steel shelves were a way for me to frame and elevate the vessels I had been making. They had become characters and I wanted to create a stage for them to exist on. It immediately located the vessels in this 2D painterly space, which was only amplified when the flowers were added.
I was thrilled to be able to see your solo show Woman on Top at Jack Hanley Gallery a few months ago. Congrats a truly stunning show. Can you tell us more about how you plan out each piece—since they are installed, what kind of planning process is involved pre-installation?
Thank you for seeing it! Leading up to an exhibition I have to generate more work than I can actually show. The shapes of the vessels I make are not always practical so it’s usually safe to assume that some of them won’t survive two firings. The strain of the appendages can lead to cracks and sometimes they get stuck to the kiln shelf and break because I load them with so much glaze. So I like to over-make and then edit and I don't get my heart set on anything. When I build the vessels themselves sometimes I work from sketches and sometimes I just put on a podcast or a movie and start without a plan. They tend to have personalities that evolve as I build them no matter what. I usually wait till the vessels are glazed to work out how I am going to paint the steel displays and I use big sheets of color-aid paper to sketch out color combos and patterns before I commit. I also use the color-aid to make a maquette of each piece so I can lay out the show in a model of the gallery space, to try to figure out the color balance of the whole room.
I was particularly interested in the way the show changed as the flowers were updated out throughout the course of the exhibition. Can you talk a bit about the relationship of the living flora juxtaposed with the permanence of the ceramic vessels that hold the water?
Clay objects have always been such a revealing part of humans’ archeological record. It is an enduring medium. I like that sturdy sense of permanence and history that comes with a clay vessel. The contrast of the flowers, their rich pigmentation and lifespan makes the whole scene feel fleeting. The flowers’ impermanence also ensures that the vessels themselves will be touched, used and reconsidered regularly.
The shadows cast by both the vessels and the floral arrangements on the wall are definitely one of the most alluring aspects of the work. Do you think ahead about the placement, or plan for the shadows?
I think about them. I love the shadows and often ask photographers to shoot them with really hard light so all of those shapes get amplified. It adds another layer of visual strangeness to the work, especially in a photograph.
You also are a professional photo stylist and and run your own studio, along with your husband. How did you get involved with prop and photo styling? How does this work relate to your artwork?
My friendships with fine art photographers who also shoot commercially really got me into the world of prop styling and set design. They would ask my husband and I to build things for their shoots and then we would hang out on set all day with them and help make a picture. It’s an insane job that I feel lucky to have. I’ve gotten paid to put puppies into handbags. I tell people it’s God’s work. I actually enjoy it because it has a lot to do with the things I’m interested in— the construction of images, framing devices, the language of worship and desire, flattening things from a 3D space to a 2D space. I based the shape of my steel shelves on the photographic cyclorama. People take photos of everything now so I wanted to nod to that photographic space with these works. Most art is viewed on a phone now. I think my work looks much better in person, but I was conscious that the work would be translated to a 2D space.
How do you balance what I can only assume to be a very busy schedule between these two aspects of your life?
The commercial set design work is freelance so there’s a relatively natural ebb and flow. I’m always happy for the stretches where I get more days in the studio. Most artists I know have to balance another job with their art practice and just find a way to make it work. After reading some AbEx artists’ biographies lately I feel like, “I have hot running water, no STDs, and can buy groceries this week so I’m doing great.”
Your vessels are beautifully unique in their design—often simple central forms but with complex ornamentation expanding on either side. Can you tell us more about how the “wings” or handles on either side of the vases came to be?
The inspiration for those shapes are from all over the place but have a lot to do with costuming and embellishment- Grace Jones’ wardrobe, those insane Mantua court dresses that were so wide ladies had to walk sideways to get through doorways, Sonia Delaunay’s and Matisse’s stage costumes, Edo period Kimonos, Erte fashion illustrations, West Indian carnival costumes, pre-Columbian jewelry, Egyptian ceramics- I could go on and on.
The choice of the arrangements seem to really accentuate certain aspects of each work—from the color, forms, and more. How do you choose each arrangement, especially since they change weekly? Is it difficult to source the exotic plants that you normally include?
I really enjoy the flower sourcing—the flower district (28th between 6th and 7th ave.) is one of my favorite places in New York and such a good place to start the day. Caribbean Cuts, Dutch Flower Line and G Page are my go-to spots. The arranging feels painterly because its all about balancing color and form. I love flowers that have a gestural line quality and rich pigmentation.
Are there any artists, designers, movements, etc. that have most influenced your work?
I like Louise Nevelson, basically all Etruscan everything, Kawaii Kanjiro, Hockney,
I love the Bauhaus women- especially Annie Albers and Gunta Stozl. Memphis design was everywhere when I was a kid in LA so I’ve got an affinity for that- Nathalie du Pasquier, Ettore Sottsass.
Your work is very tactile overall—with juxtapositions between the glossy, icing-like glaze with the canvas weave impressions clay body, and more. Are there any particular feelings you hope to evoke through experiencing this work visually?
I hope it evokes things that are bodily and the materials of painting.
Can you tell us a bit about your current studio? What are the most important components of your space? Is there anything you love about your current setup?
I share a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard with my husband Gerard Mullin. He is an amazing painter and I love stealing ideas and colors from him. We used to have a studio that was one large room, and now we have a studio with our own rooms and I have a door that I can slam. Russ and Daughters is now selling bagels in the Navy Yard so I basically have everything that I need.
Can you walk us through what might be a typical day for you?
A dream day is getting to spend the day in the studio- rolling slabs, hand building, eating Russ and Daughters for lunch, maybe unloading some bisque, glazing, and then taking a dance class at 7:30pm.
Who are some of the artists you look at most often?
Lately I’ve been looking at Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Betty Woodman, Ruth Root, Ron Nagle, Kathy Butterly, Sonia Delauney, Arlene Shecht, Agnes Martin, Isamu Noguchi, Georgio Morandi, Henri Matisse, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaller, and Claire Aho.
What is one of the the best exhibitions your have seen recently?
The Ron Nagle show that just opened at Matthew Marks on 22nd Street is awesome. Those little works have so much chutzpah. And the surfaces are just insane. So pleasurable to look at and spend time with.
Is there any advice you have received that you remember often?
Well, it’s not advice that I’ve received really, but I do love that line in Spinal Tap, “Have a good time, all the time”
What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I’m reading 9th Street Women and love thinking about that time. Someone build me a time machine so I can throw a dance party at Black Mountain College with Elaine DeKooning. I just read Milkman by Anna Burns and thought it was very good. It’s about a young woman in Belfast during the Troubles.
Watching Veep and love it so much, and just finished the Tim Robinson show “I think you should Leave.” I also saw this comedy short recently that I liked called “Brian and Charles” by David Earl and Chris Hayward. It’s on Vimeo.
Whats up next for you?
I’ve been thinking about fountains and mosaics a lot after spending some time in Rome recently. Maybe I’ll make a fountain.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!