The Paintings and Drawings of Mark Mulhern, by R. M. Ryan
Sometimes, Master Artists work here beside us. We don’t even see them at first, for they are seeing the same thing we’re seeing.
Remember La Boulangerie, the coffee shop located in a basement at 241 N. Broadway in the Historic Third Ward? It’s closed now, but in its day it is represented a new chapter in dining out. The place had been stripped bare. Its elements were on display. Here the heating ducts, the electrical service, and the water pipes were no longer covered. Unlike past remodeling, nothing was hidden beneath dry wall. The tables and chairs were recycled pieces of primitive furniture purchased in a Cedarburg antique shop. It was unabashedly a basement, a place that was clearly starting over from the ground up. It was a new place, but it carried along the old and the broken,
Right as you got in line for coffee, pastries, and sandwiches was a painting by Mark Mulhern.
I, for one, stared at that painting as I waited to order food.
Like the restaurant, the painting seemed unfinished somehow, as if the viewers were to riddle out it subject. It was, as I recall (I’m doing this from memory), a scene of bathers, mostly nude figures, gathered by gathered by a waterfall. The figures were rendered in a childlike style, blurred by smeared yellow paint. There were texts that I couldn’t quite make out, as if this were a short story, as well as painting. The whole place—the restaurant and the painting—were a half-finished narrative that we, the customers, were part of, as our blurred figures moved through the food line.
It was a rich and evocative scene. It was also childlike, but wise in a way that children are wise.
We were all here for the moment, but then gone the next.
How unlike these from the Dutch painters, who apparently captured a moment, and captured it for good. In, for example, Women with a Pearl Necklace, here we are with window filled with light and a young women holding pearl to the sunlight.
As Howard Nemerov puts it:
If I could say to you, and make it stick,
A girl in red hat, women in blue
Reading letter, a lady weighing gold . . .
But nothing sticks in the world of Mark Mulhern. The texts are mumbled, and the characters are blurred.
Yet how lovely their comings and going are; how beautiful their half-heard tales are.
How like life itself.
It’s deep pleasure to watch this Master at work.
~R. M. Ryan is poet and novelist.