Michael Cullen's Love Letters to Life
The artist Mick Cullen, died on July 10th, 2020, though I did not hear about it until months after. In a belated tribute on his anniversary, an interview we did for an exhibition brochure in 1997:
It is strangely comforting to meet someone who has never heard of the Celtic Tiger. Mick Cullen, inhabiting the Georgian frugality of his room on Dublin's Henrietta Street, has never heard the term, but rather likes it now that he has.
‘It's very good,’ he enthuses.
It's the stripes that interest him. He always had a liking for zebras, which appeared in his earlier works with almost the same frequency as cowboys in his later ones. Perhaps the attraction was the ancient conundrum as to whether the zebra is white with black stripes or black with white stripes, but in any event he liked its synthesis of light and dark. He thinks that, as an attempt to describe something supposedly unequivocally virtuous, the tiger, with its stripes bearing witness in the same ways to the unavoidable reality of both life and colour, is an interesting admission of the society's unconscious awareness of its own intrinsic ambiguity.
Not that this is something that he will think about for long. His life as an artist is parallel to that of the society — independent, insulated, mirroring as though by accident. It is an exile within — a luxury, you might say, without luxuries — which means he does not need to know ‘what's going on’ in order to make vital paintings. ‘It is possible,’ he once remarked, ‘to make a painting out of having a stone in your shoe’.
He is deeply serious painter who tries to avoid being a serious person. He presents himself in his recent paintings, with mock-self-deprecation, as a cowboy, which he says is the result of a sense or a feeling of being out of place as a painter in Ireland. Painting himself in a cowboy hat, he anticipates the inevitable.
But this detachment is necessary. I envy and admire his capacity to be removed, a rare gift in a socio-political technocracy, where most of us live in artificial constructs, social edifices, political prefabs, and find it hard to escape the sense that we are bolted into a machine. Even if we awake to the odd moment of grace, we are rapidly returned to the construct with the act of turning on a radio to the utterings of some politician who has come to believe that, whatever he is being paid for, it is not for the preservation of moments of grace. We live, then, as though in someone else’s space, a corridor veering off at a tangent from what we sense should be our natural path. Perhaps the point of artists is to live their lives resolutely on their own track, to bear witness to that continuing possibility and insinuate for the rest of us what we are leaving behind. But even this implies a necessity to be aware (on the artist’s part) of the error of what the rest of us are doing, and this is misleading.
As a writer who must, or chooses to, work in the media of the marketplace, my problem is trying to deal with the material of the everyday without becoming entangled irredeemably in the prefabrications of the formal world. Words, in a modern technocratic, hyper-political world, serve to create short circuits which carry everything upwards to the crown of the head, flattening, rationalising, reducing. I envy painters what I see as their freedom from this condition, and I like Mick Cullen's recorded assertion that ‘rationalists can't dance, that is their tragedy’.
But Mick Cullen tells me I am mistaken. Although he has not, he claims, much of a facility with words, and although the language of painting may be quite different to the language of everyday survival, or even writing about it, he too is subject to a not entirely dissimilar filtering process. He is governed by the shape of the canvas, its flatness, its two-dimensionality, its rectangularity. And all of this has its own logic. ‘It's like you're on a film set and you're the director. Somebody has to put the thing into shape.’ In this he is subject to logics which, for all his artistic autonomy, have to an extent to do with external considerations.
At some part of his head, he says, he thinks he knows what's going on. And yet, he cannot be led by this. ‘It's a handy kind of instrument, or tool. But it seems to be other things that are vastly more important.’
Mick Cullen thinks the extent of one’s entrapment in the constructs of the society may have something to do with one’s origins and upbringing. He thinks you have to, first of all, understand the landscape, the canvas of your life, what it tells you about what you are and what you ‘should’ be, and then learn how to contravene everything about yourself.
He grew up in County Wicklow. If he lives another three years, his life’s experience may be said to have spanned three centuries, from the darkness of the post-Famine period to the white light of the new millennium. His father, a Protestant gentleman, was in his seventies when Mick was born, having himself been born in 1869. This possibly makes Mick Cullen virtually unique among painters and middle-aged Irishmen. Perhaps it is what has given him a disrespect for the modern moment, as well as his ability to transcend the paradox of time and place, to wordlessly grasp the fact that an artist needs roots and an understanding of them, while needing even more an ability to transcend them. ‘It is interesting, but quite hard to articulate,’ he says. He identifies with someone like Salman Rushdie, whose identity is couched in uncertainties. ‘Being a person who, apart from knowing where they were born, is not able to pinpoint exactly who they are. It takes some time to work it out.’
This fluidity was reflected also in his experience of religion. His father was a Protestant, his mother a Catholic. ‘I had total access to both vistas,’ he says. But at the same time he never considered himself either one or the other. ‘I became neutralised.’ Up to the age of ten he went to a Protestant school, but then his father died and his mother persuaded him to ‘convert’. He went along with this for a while but at the age of 15 or 16 he had enough. ‘As soon as I could, I fucked off.’ Since then, religion has had no relevance for him. Looking back, he sees both religions as having their attractions and both their black sides. ‘Neither is very attractive from my point of view.’
His journeys take place simultaneously without and within. Going away, to Europe and America, opened up possibilities for discovering the ways in which dark is contained in colour and light, and vice versa. ‘I painted here for a long time — long enough, anyway — as part of the traditional Irish school. I tried to paint the darkness. I think we're all attracted by that dark side of ourselves. But then I was compelled to get out of the country. At the time, if you had asked me, I couldn't have told you why. Maybe it has something to do with being an island people. I think we're like every other organism, like the way a plant has to do certain things in its development — it's almost as if you have something stamped into you somewhere, and you have to go off and do certain things at a certain time and kick off on another branch or something. The first time I saw the country properly was when I left and looked back at it. I could see it like a small dot in the Atlantic, and I could understand a lot more about it looking at it from a distance. It was like turning on a light-switch, and suddenly the black room was illuminated. They were still black things, but there was light on them.
‘One of the reason I had to get out was that the history of the society just tore me up. It was an instinctual move on my part. Irish history is cruel and tragic. It's a miracle that we survived, in a sense, and to have the strength to shake it off when we got the opportunity.’
His most recent paintings, covering the period of the 1990s, from the time he moved to live in France, have a unity about them that is striking and paradoxical. They have in common the bold, primary colours, the symbols of cowboy hats and love-hearts, flowers, cars, nudes and occasional skulking dogs. They look, in a word, foreign, and yet they suggest something that, for all its exoticism and unreality, might be as Irish as their creator. ‘In this country, when you look out, it's grey most of the time. But then, when you go into a pub at night and take a whiskey or a Guinness, suddenly another more colourful side comes out. It's like you rip the material and find underneath there's a lining that’s colourful and alive. That wild madness that is pervasive through this country, you don't find when you go to England — you don't get that kind of extravagant attitude to life. I think that's to be found on the Mediterranean as well. Maybe it's the Celtic coming up in us. It's maybe something that helps the nervous system to retain its integrity or something, to prevent it going to pieces.’
It wasn't that travelling enabled him to discover new colours, so much as that it allowed him to unmix the old ones. ‘White, black and grey are made up of all the colours,’ he remembers. ‘When you mix up all the colours, you get grey. If you throw the right colours together you get black. And if you spin all the colours you get white.’ He is not against people seeing his paintings as Mediterranean or something, if that's what they see. ‘The Mediterranean has had a big effect on the world, and Ireland hasn't had any much effect on anywhere else.’
If you were to take these paintings at their face value, on the basis of their clarity of colour, their ostensibly unmitigatedly positive embrace of the world, you would be missing something: the black irony, the self-mockery, the lurking dark of both shadow and symbol, the canis, cynic, the always-present dog on the ground looking up at the clamour of passion or pretence.
In a way, these paintings strike me as an expression of dissociation, of the limbo of our pathological fear of living, of the light and colour which has for so long been separated-off and banished from the everyday in Irish life, the mosaic underneath the dark self-portrait of a grey family. We fear both the light and the dark, positioning ourselves halfway between the two, in the whitish, half-light grey of the manufactured everyday. Whereas in more ‘normal’ societies, joy and sadness are integrated aspects of everyday existence, our pain and joy are at opposite ends of our living space. Mostly we live in the middle, unable to engage with either.
I am privileged to have, on my living room wall, a Mick Cullen painting called Ferrera Supper, a scene based on the ritual evening meal at an artist's village in the mountains of Spain, where he has worked for periods in recent years. The painting is readily recognisable from his 1990s period. It is colourful and rich in detail and activity. The scene is the post-prandial table at the end of a working day, and various entertainments are underway for the diversion of the artists and family members. A child is playing with a gadget like a big plastic spool, involving a string and two sticks. The familiar cowboy-hatted figure, complete with emblematic granny glasses, is playing an accordion. In one sense, the painting is unremittingly celebratory, in another, dark and quiet and a little frightening. As you look at it, you gradually become conscious that all this activity is happening at a remove. You are close to it, but not part of it. It is suspended before you, the spectator, and by virtue of your exclusion, the scene threatens you with its intense self-involvement.
To look at a Mick Cullen's painting is in a way to catch a glimpse of what we have known was there all along, but from which we have averted our eyes. The strangeness of the relationship between the observer and the observed, the threads of culture and behaviour that bind us together and yet pull us apart.
He doesn't see his work in terms of stages — more development of the same thing in different forms. ‘New things occur to you, new ideas. It's like springboards on to new things, and you leave the others far behind you and you look back and wonder what the connections are over a period of time. Stages doesn't really work as a metaphor, but you're evolving anyway.’
In this, not least because they have been painted by a man who has never heard of the Celtic Tiger, they are prophetic — not in the sense that they have made statements which came true, but in that they show signs of having anticipated something by experiencing it in advance. For in the land of the Celtic Tiger — in its confusion of interests and aspirations, in its very language of false confidence and bland contentedness — the cynicism is likewise camouflaged in the colours of optimism. The cynic is embraced within the picture, while the sceptic is damned as the begrudging naysayer. Cynicism, far from being suspect, is an integral element of the picture of prosperity.
‘Cynicism,’ he says, ‘is a kind of a luxury. I mean a negative luxury, in the sense that, even though you're cynical, you're going to have to go out and try to make the system work for yourself. Maybe it’s part of the healing process — that you need to distance yourself from the unpleasantness of, for example, the race experience.’
But cynicism is also the death of idealism. At times it seems like he is trying to paint something that is almost dead, something inexpressibly precious which he has never more than glimpsed, something he remains removed from, but which he knows must exist or have existed, to make the present possible and the future possibly better. He says that sometimes he finds that he starts to paint places even before he knows he is going to visit them. ‘It may sound ridiculous, but sometimes things have taken place after I've painted them,’ he says. This requires a different sense of the structure of time, of the difference between a linear narrative and the two-dimensional form to which a painting must conform. ‘Instead of having to read from page one to page 520, to the last full stop, in painting you can begin in the middle and you can stop right away. The time element is different.’
He talks about his paintings being about ‘love’, and, allowing for the fact that words will come between our understandings, I think what I see as their prophetic quality is what he means. They are prophetic in the same sense as Kafka's The Trial, rather than in the sense of a political opinion poll. By engaging with the world, they acquire the right to anticipate it. Paintings, he says, are love letters to life.
But they are not perfumed letters. As passionate as they are, they seem to be as much about the death of passion, in romance, in history, in life. I don't know whether these deaths are predicated on a particular time or place, or whether they are part of the condition of being human. Neither, I suspect, does he. But he is neither cynical nor pessimistic. Love and passion change form, but do not disappear. It is his job to catch them in their new clothes. ‘Perhaps there is a quiet passion somewhere,’ he says. ‘Passion is a wonderful thing. But you have to separate different things. In some parts of life you can be completely closed to it; in others you can be open. Or you can find that, contrary to the kind of person you thought you were talking to earlier, you can find it opening up and you are in the grasp of this thing. And it can be wonderful, and it can have its excesses either way. It can be very destructive, depending on how addictive one becomes to whatever it is.’
It matters to him that he is here in Ireland right now, because his entire identity is bound up with this country. ‘The umbilical cord thing is there,’ he says. ‘I can't shake that off. I don't want to shake it off anyway. It is totally important to me to have that, but also to have a kind of capacity for bi-location.’ Sometimes he finds Ireland a difficult place to live. ‘When I come back, I take on the disease.’ He says the word again, hyphenating it: dis-ease. ‘You know what dis-ease is: you don't feel relaxed.’ But in general he likes what prosperity is doing to Ireland, and especially the influx of black and coloured people who he believes will add enormously to the canvas of Irish life in the future. ‘Places don't change, but your perception of them changes. There's nothing out there, in a sense, until you open your eyes and see it.’
He paints sometimes on large mats or carpets, and before he does so he likes to leave them on the floor, to allow the activity of his work to make its stamp on them even before he starts to paint. Like drink or dope or whatever else can help to make a painting possible, he is all in favour of footprints and spilled coffee. Underneath his feet, his ‘de luxe canvases’ catch the drips of his paint and suffer the accidents of the artist’s studio. He leaves his brushes and knives on them and permits them to make their marks. He allows his shoes to carry the paint where they will. ‘That's a beginning,’ he says. He is working on such a canvas when I arrive, a painting in which the motifs of his recent work, the cowboy, the valentine hearts, the beloved, and the separating, isolating wedges of almost incongruous geometry, merge into something familiar but, as always, quite new.
What it's ‘about’, he says, is what he was going through when he started it — break-up, estrangement, distance, the separation represented by a note posted through a letterbox. He started it in France, folded it up while it was still wet, brought it home in his luggage, so the two sides, each with a participant in the relationship, have left their traces on one another, merging, mirroring, scarring. He is trying to think of a name for it. He thinks he might call it ‘Love's Fall’. But, he says, ‘I don't know if that makes any sense’. Later he tells me he is going to call this painting ‘February the 14th’.