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The Productive Side of Despair: An interview with Edward Mullany

The Burning of the City of the Crocodile Men  acrylic on poster board
The Burning of the City of the Crocodile Men

Figures for an Apocalypse

In a house at the end of a street of deserted
houses, a dog sleeps.

The sun begins
to come up, or the movement

of the earth lets the sun
appear to come up.


Edward Mullany’s stories, poems and pictures have a strange power. They confront what is going on in the world–the violence, the misunderstandings, the place of the family. We’ve spent time together at readings and gone to museums. Edward is a wonderful reader of his work and a good friend. He’s also a peacemaker. Once, in Harlem, he quelled an incredibly loud disturbance outside a bar where our friends were reading.

His writing has appeared in Keyhole, Alaska Quarterly Review, New Ohio Review, Tampa Review, Corium, Johnny America, Invisible Ear, and other journals. His painting and pictures are on-line at The Other Notebook. At Keyhole, Gabe Durham also interviewed Edward with more links to his fiction.


Gerke: Your paintings and pictures with the Paintbrush application appear to me extensions of your poetry and fiction. Indeed they seem essentially linked. If someone wanted to be keyed into your enterprise they would do well to read a few of your pieces and then look at few visual works. Both are marked by an ‘absence.’ In the visual works there are no backgrounds, in the prose and poetry (at least in your latest short-shorts) the perspective is somewhat similar. The poems and stories are all foregrounded. The narrative voice is a grand voice who ‘writes’ the world in a way that ‘composes’ in the mode of Cormac McCarthy—a determinism weighs on the world. The narrative seems set from a high point in the sky and nothing the characters do can change the outcome. Is there any truth in this?

Mullany: I think the word determinism applies to some of my work.  The characters in my works, especially in my paintings, tend to be frozen in a moment of inaction.  Often their arms are by their sides, as if they’re unable or unwilling to affect what is happening to them, or what’s around them.  Even my suicidal figures sometimes appear to have been posed.  In this sense, their lives have been determined; they exist for the purpose of evoking what I believe is central to the human experience.  But I also think I leave room in my work for possibility; there’s nothing utterly conclusive about my work.

I love the way absence in a work can involve a reader or viewer in the creation of that work’s meaning.  One of my favorite projects by Warhol is the electric chair series.

Gerke: Are writing and painting intuitive for you? Is the process different with different mediums? Is art for you a cataloging of your own feelings and moods?

Mullany: Rarely do I have a subject in mind before I begin to write or paint.  That isn’t to say subject is irrelevant for me, but rather that it’s revealed to me only after I begin to progress.  At the same time, I’m not satisfied with an evocation.  A mood or feeling might inspire a work, and thus delineate what the work can and cannot become, but never is the mood or feeling what I’m primarily interested in.  I’m interested in story, in representation.  Even a painting that appears to be abstract (“What the Nuns and I Have in Common”) is really a kind of narrative.  I started out writing stories, and I’ve never completely abandoned them.  Only now I’m more interested in suggestion, implication, and, as you pointed out, absence.

What the Nuns and I Have in Common paintbrush (computer app.)
What the Nuns and I Have in Common

Gerke: You were born in Australia. How long were you there? Do you see that time having any effect on your subsequent artistic life? Was there anything about Australia that still carries over in your work? Landscape? Culture?

Mullany: I lived in Australia till I was twelve.  I’m the middle of seven children (five girls, two boys).  The social adjustment required after we moved was difficult, though I don’t think I understood it to be so at the time.  But I was old enough to have already begun to anticipate or imagine my own future, and I knew that the change would affect my personal history in a fundamental way.  There was something traumatic simply in knowing this.

The move shaped me as an artist in that it was probably one of the first experiences to develop in me the consciousness of an outsider.  Unlike some immigrants, I wasn’t explicitly made to feel unwelcome, but the knowledge that I had of the way other people lived, and the way I might have continued to live had my family not moved, gave me an awareness of my own otherness, which is a kind of awareness that can help an artist cultivate imaginative dexterity.  This awareness comes to many artists at some stage early in life, and it doesn’t have to be precipitated by a change in geography.  The artist only needs to be receptive to it when it strikes.

I miss Australia the way a person misses home.  I’m nostalgic for it not just as a place but as a series of memories and events that has shaped my personality and defined some of the character traits I value.  There’s a stubborn streak in me that is, I think, distinctively Australian.  It arrives in my art as a kind of indifference to whether a particular work shocks more than it pleases.

I’d like to paint what I remember about the Australian landscape.  Every time I see pictures of it, I think of the didgeridoo and the bullroarer, instruments that make sounds that are ancient and eternal.  Something of the Australian Aboriginal is in every Australian who loves the land for the way it looks and the way it smells.  My favorite tree is the gum tree.

A Scene From the American West  acrylic and paper on canvas
A Scene From the American West

Gerke: A running theme in your work seems to be violence. There are many guns, blood and murders in the visual pieces, even a hanging. What draws you to violence? What about it inspires your work?

Mullany: The violence is inexplicable.  It’s a manifestation of an impulse whose origins I can’t or don’t want to trace.  But it’s more than that too.  When I look at one of my works impersonally, which I have to try to do in order to judge it as art, I see in the violence a hint or shadow of that which is biblical.  The violence isn’t gratuitous as much as it is the consequence of some kind of indifferent cosmic force.  This strikes me as strange because I’m actually Catholic; I don’t believe in an indifferent God.

It’s this biblical tenor that’s more significant to me than what might be called an existential or even a depressive tenor.  If my work is depressive, it’s only as a side effect of my attempt to draw attention to an aspect of existence that is muted by the din of American pop culture.  I’m discontented.  Blood in my work is usually an indication that a battle is being waged for a soul.

Gerke: One piece of yours is very striking and it might be because of my own Midwestern roots and that is Midwestern Family. The characters are all together in one blob, they seem to have that porcine shape that true or false has become synonymous with Midwesterners. One doesn’t see the woman’s face, she seemed to be turned into the man who has his arm around her. The child’s sneakers are prominent, but it seems everything is built around the father’s face which could be said to be bathed in murk and something akin to satisfaction at the same time. The turned woman also reminds me of the famous Young Girl – Old Woman Illusion. She is turned and the little bit of mouth visible could be in either great pleasure or pain. It’s a very mysterious piece to me and it remind me of growing up in an atmosphere where things seemed off-kilter just enough to sour one’s mood perpetually. Any thoughts on this?

Midwestern Family paintbrush (computer app.)
Midwestern Family

Mullany: I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say about this drawing.  It began as an imitation of a photo I saw somewhere, of a family of three – a father, his wife, and a young boy on the father’s shoulders.  The photo wasn’t called Midwestern Family, but I applied this title to my rendition of the photo because that’s what it reminded me of.  Partly, my intention was to create a stark, visual allusion to Renaissance depictions of the Holy Family, which I realize would have been a kind of idealization, but the basis for which I saw in the composition of the original photo.  And there is a part of me that values the Midwest for what is actually a stereotype – the uncomplicated and generous nature of its inhabitants.  But I think, anyway, that the final result, as you suggest, is something more ambiguous than that.  This is partly due to the fact that I omitted particular lines and details (the boy’s face, for instance).

Still, to me, this picture remains one of my few comforting images.  Despite the ambiguity, there’s a physical intimacy and an absence of outside threat.  I like the fact that, due to the perspective, all three of their heads appear to come in contact with each other.  The figures become, as you say, “one blob,” but not necessarily without reason.

A Triumvirate  paintbrush (computer app.)
A Triumvirate

Gerke: In your story “Single” (a five sentence story) a male dentist tells a patient that he has good news and bad about her mouth and asks her to choose. She says bad, but then changes it to good. Here is the last paragraph: “The dentist laughed. He was in his thirties, about the same age as Renee, but married.” It seems this is a critique of social relations, loneliness, also the social ladder. What do you see in the story?

Mullany: I see this story mainly as a dramatization of loneliness, though it’s also funny.

I’m interested in the way people reveal who they are without knowing it or intending to.  But I’m not interested in this the way an anthropologist or a psychologist might be interested in it.  I’m not looking to explain or trace the origins of a particular character’s behavior.  Rather, I’m trying to make a small monument to the behavior itself, and to the character or characters who are involved in the behavior.  I do this without regard for what I would call a scene’s moral context, though I’m aware of the moral context, and though I hope to imply something about morality.

In the end, I think my art grows out of a kind of mourning.  It’s the productive side of despair.

1 thought on “The Productive Side of Despair: An interview with Edward Mullany

  1. Great interview, guys. I think the “Crocodile Men” painting is really cool.

    Looking at the images — and particularly because the Paintbrush application creates a primitivist-like “flatness” — and reading the discussion about characters frozen in inaction makes me think of Walter Benjamin’s famous passage about Klee’s “Angelus Novus”:

    “A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

    I think Benjamin, too, wanted to plumb the productive side of despair…

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