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A Fine Intoxication

The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else... — Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass, 2001

The question is not what you look at, but what you see. It is only necessary to behold the least fact or phenomenon, however familiar, from a point a hair's breadth aside from our habitual path or routine, to be overcome, enchanted by its beauty and significance. — Henry David Thoreau Journal, December 11, 1855

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you keep a wave upon the sand? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?The Sound of Music

In our quest to understand the world beyond fact(s) and objectivity, ideas surface about the sublime and liminality with tangents into the subliminal and the subconscious. These variations on the theme of altered states or alternate realities—states we experience, not those posited in science fiction—reveal our difficulty with what cannot be comprehended, what cannot be described, what cannot be named. Studying metaphysics, perception, religion, and spirituality helps, but the great unknown is ultimately undefinable. That is the beauty of it.

To tap into that intangible beauty, Kathleen Mulcahy has turned to moody and evocative work that is open to interpretation, like cultural historian Marjorie Garber’s open-ended “figures of thinking.” Glass drops—are they tear drops or drops of water or some kind of swimming cell or organism—are strategically placed across a misty, brushed glass surface in a rhythmical cadence. The drops, stretched almost to the point of breakage, are suspended at different heights in front of a muted yet light-filled background reminiscent of the shimmering surface of the ocean waves on a cloudy day. Their positions seem to shift in space like a mirage created by the sun on waves. The nature references are both specific and allusive, refusing to be precisely delineated, like the unexpected sensations of an experience where reality is suspended. The resulting pieces evoke a meditative, contemplative reaction that recreates the experience that generated this new work.

The artist has observed the atmospheric shift that portends change and awakens the senses twice, once in a canoe on the water as a thunderstorm approached and once in a field as a tornado headed her way. Both states caused her to channel the forces of nature into works that explore movement, equilibrium and disequilibrium, and change. The earlier tornadoes and spinners were grounded in body work with vessels formed by breath, echoing the fluidity of gender definitions, while the newer series connects more directly with nature itself. All the works approach metaphysics obliquely, through the experiential with the act of looking at and comprehending art matched by that of being in nature. Now instead of exploring changing personal identifications, Mulcahy enters an in between place and moment, mining the space between, as she says, heaven and earth, here and now, sooner and later, a moment of changing a way of thinking, of recognizing the potential of maybe.

That place, that state of being, that alternate reality is notoriously difficult to define in our usual concrete terms. “In its greatness or intensity and whether physical, metaphysical, moral, aesthetic or spiritual, by the time of the Enlightenment, the sublime was generally regarded as beyond comprehension and beyond measurement,” a state or “sensation that we experience when words fail or when we find ourselves beyond the limits of reason.” (“The Art of the Sublime,” These ambiguities, or figures of thinking, resonate as well in philosophical discussions of the ultimates, or the unknowables that have occupied the minds of some of our greatest thinkers. Liminality shares this condition of being unknowable with the more concrete aspect of being at a threshold—in some dictionary definitions, notably, a sensory threshold—or in a state of in betweenness. Connected to the Tibetan concept of bardo which refers to a suspended state divorced from reality that can produce transcendental insights or hallucinogenic visions, a time between two lives of an individual. Mulcahy feels she was at such a pivotal moment and that by crossing the threshold, she was able to move into a new body of work.

These altered states have been intimately connected to the experience of both art and nature, with a notable group of works, mostly romantic painting, that aspire to reach the sublime in nature. To hint today that one is aiming for either the sublime or the liminal comes close to hubris, and many people aren’t even open to their existence, preferring to stay in their safe haven of facts and the concrete. Sometimes, however, individuals are caught unawares, their minds atypically quiet, almost to the point of doing away with the ego, and they surrender to these alternate realities.

Kathleen Mulcahy describes her work in terms aligned with these ideas and locates the genesis of many of her ideas in them. Speaking of a recent work, Alchemist’s Dream, she writes not only that her “universe is the opening of the soul,” but also that she is “seeking to invite your closer inspection with references we feel we understand: a drop, a wave. draws us deeper still so that we are free to look for our own explanation of the earth and our dreams of paradise.” While her explanation is rooted more in western ideas and vocabulary, it speaks to the possibilities inherent in the eastern understanding of bardo.

This interest in both eastern and western philosophies connects her earlier work and her new sculptural series in a unified whole. The shape of the body from the spinners carried over into the vapors, and the teardrop shapes were part of very early work where she carefully placed a number of drops on a variety of surfaces, exploring the tension of movement and stasis. Her earlier reading of Carl Jung and Maria Rainer Rilke still seems pertinent now when ideas about the sublime and the liminal have surfaced in her work. She loved one of Rilke’s pieces: “The lithe swinging/of that rhythmical easy stride/which circles down/to the tiniest hub/is like a dance of energy/around a point/in which a great will/stands stunned and numb.” That great will overcome, stunned and numb, is the liberated state underlying the latest work but she was conscious of it years ago.

Glass is an extraordinarily demanding medium, sort of the extreme sport of the art world. The danger of fire, the slightest manipulations, the quick gestures require a choreography worthy of modern dance. The forces of nature—especially fire and air—yield to human control, a parallel to our attempt to subdue nature, especially with our advancing technology. That control is an illusion, but we continue on our quest to master nature. While most glass artists are happy to concentrate on technical virtuosity, Mulcahy is one of the few who rise above this juggernaut to see the potential of glass to transform the viewer’s ideas and perceptions just as the artist transform the material itself. In a sense she tames the forces of nature as she attempts to depict the hidden aspects of nature that have intrigued and haunted artists for centuries.

While not seeking the sublime, as have notables from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Frederic Church, Mulcahy, nonetheless is intrigued by ideas associated with it and the liminal, ideas she shares with her favorite artists such as Christopher Wilmarth and Pat Steir. Steir was influenced by John Cage and his way of “non-doing,” a Taoist principle that involved denying the ego in order to access another state of being. She learned to rely on chance, spontaneity, and the random as a way to silence the ego and open the space inside, finding that the mystery is embedded in the freedom of the very act of painting, as explicated by Kay Larson. (Pat Steir: Winter Paintings, 2011) Her artistic vocabulary, grounded in her paintings of waterfalls, for example, encourages an open-ended artistic expression that allows the viewer to remain in the concrete world or delve into alternate realities.

As Doris van Drathen wrote, Steir’s work relies on “the unrelenting quest for a ‘second reality,’ a world on the other side,” as she “opens up spaces that are determined not by the compositional considerations of painting but by emptiness and silence, and the kinds of events contingent to these.” (“The Spatialization of Experience” in Pat Steir: installations, 2006) Mulcahy’s work also relies on contemplation accessed through intuition, and her musical references resonate with Steir as well. Mulcahy’s rests, pauses, and silences explain the placement of the water drops as they syncopate the surface in a rhythmical pattern that operates both two and three dimensionally, opening up that second reality.

Christopher Wilmarth’s work is closer to that of Mulcahy’s, especially in his sculptural combinations of metal and glass with surfaces that suggest exterior and interior states simultaneously. Wilmarth admired ideas expressed by Stéphane Mallarmé, a symbolist poet and a critic who championed the work of artists from Manet to Matisse. The poet spoke of the quick intuition captured in matter, remarking that Manet’s work was especially pertinent because “his contours tremble, molt and evaporate into the surrounding atmosphere... [and] plunder reality from preserve their truthful aspect.” The result? As he wrote in the poem Salut: “a fine intoxication.” (“Mallarmé, Friend of Artists,” in Christopher Wilmarth: Breath, 1982)

About a century later, Mark Rothko, and his fellow abstract painters spoke in similar terms. Rothko believed his works were gateways to other world. He endeavored to communicate the tragic and the sublime through his color fields and make his viewers feel what he felt while painting. And now Kathleen Mulcahy continues the tradition.

Does art have the ability to transport viewers to that another state of being, to the threshold of the sublime, taking them back to the ecstatic state of creation? It is, perhaps, easier to experience this in nature, but a sensitive viewer can come close to the liminal by studying art. This, in the end, is what the work of Kathleen Mulcahy is: an experience or a fine intoxication.

Dr. Vicky A. Clark
Independent Curator, Writer and Lecturer
Based in Pittsburgh