Black Wood Journey: Drawings by Susan Mulcahy
Through July 8 at the Parthenon
9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 12:30-8 p.m. Sun.
$2.50 for adults, $1.25 for seniors and ages 4-17
For information, call 862-8431
Charcoal is something of a second-class citizen in the art world. Considered unsuitable for detailed work, it is often relegated to sketch use, especially since it is so easily rubbed away that corrections can be made almost indefinitely. Of course, when the artist wants to translate her sketch into a full-blown work, she reaches for the paintbrush or some loftier instrument.
In the hands of Nashville artist Susan Mulcahy, however, humble sticks of charred wood are more than capable of creating fully realized works of great depth, detail, and power. “Charcoal is often looked at as a minor materialsomething to use for studies in school,” she admits. “But since I started working with it around 1986, I’ve found it is more rich and complex than I ever thought possible.”
“Rich and complex” is an accurate description of the artist’s 17 abstract works currently on view at the Parthenon. While many of the pieces also include other media, even the large, exclusively charcoal-on-paper works display surprising textures, layers, and even colors. “I use different kinds of charcoal,” Mulcahy says. “Some are warmer and almost brown, while others have a blue or red cast.”
Mulcahy also occasionally uses colored pencils to add a subtle chromatic note to her works. In “Dreaming,” for example, the velvety strokes of pure black are infused with a hint of dark green. Here and there, the cream color of the paper itself also peeks through the charcoal shadows. The work stands alone but can also be viewed as a companion piece to “Dreaming 2,” a work with more distinct shapes (which suggest sails or perhaps sheets). The second piece is evocative of a lighter, more floating dream-state, while the first implies a deeper, more intense sort of vision. Both drawings are composed of broad bands, narrow strokes, and various shapes rather than recognizable images. “I don’t see my imagery as unlike the visual world. I see it as the underpinning and structure of that world,” Mulcahy says. “After all, our world is abstract. Just because it is a refrigerator doesn’t mean it isn’t a rectangle.”
Still, there are works in which the artist conveys somewhat realistic images. In “Windows, P5,” for example, there is clearly a shape that most viewers would identify as a four-paned window. Strokes of charcoal suggest streaks on the glass or perhaps sheer curtains. In “Earth Place,” there is a simple outline of a house, in “Choices” a shape resembling a doorway. “There are two image directions in which I’m going,” Mulcahy says. “Some works have more of a landscape feeling with distances and horizons. Others like ‘Windows’ and ‘Choices’ are about looking into the unknown or into memories. Of course, I don’t necessarily think of that up front.”
For Mulcahy, the creative process is a completely intuitive one. She doesn’t pick up the charcoal or approach the paper, even after so many years, with a plan. “For me it’s very much about the act of drawing,” she says. “And part of it is simply the mood I’m in. When I’m working on very large works, I’m feeling expansive and energetic and I tack the paper to the wall and use my whole arm when I draw. When my mood is more low-key, I might work on the smaller, mixed-media pieces on a table.”
Mulcahy seldom completes a work in one sitting and always works on several pieces at once. It’s a method that prevents her from becoming self-conscious about her drawing or focusing on what viewers might think. “I put it aside when my drawing becomes forced,” she says. “I only come back when the drawing wants me to. I want the drawing to lead me, not for me to lead it.”
Viewing Mulcahy’s work requires a similar approach. Abstract works like these offer not so much a familiar visual destination, but a journey that asks the eye and mind to follow where the imagery takes them. For those willing to make the effort, the sights along the way are rewarding indeed.
The road to Morocco
For a very different sort of trip, join “The Sijilmasa Caravan: A Voice From Morocco,” an exhibition of medieval artifacts also currently on view at the Parthenon. The objects in the show were unearthed during excavations of the medieval Moroccan city of Sijilmasa led by MTSU history professor Ron Messier. Once a key caravan stop in the trans-Saharan trade between the Mediterranean and gold mines in West Africa, Sijilmasa has yielded such interesting artifacts as gold coins called dinars, a delicate gold ring, a stone catapult ball, a huge stone storage jar, ivory pipes, water strainers, and wall fragments inscribed with passages from the Koran. The objects are displayed at the Parthenon amidst colorful photos and text panels that illuminate the economic and social history of this once important city. The exhibition has toured to Birmingham and Memphis and will depart Nashville for other stops on July 17.
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