Claudia McNulty has become an increasingly visible presence in the Hudson Valley with her eclectic work that focuses on and draws our attention to the corporatization of our food, our interaction and effect on our animal co-habitants, and the environment. Last year she was awarded a grant for an art project based on GMOs from the New York State Council on the Arts and, through her research on the issue, discovered documented photos of lab rats with massive tumors as a result of being fed a GMO diet for two consecutive years which is the average life-span of the rats. Similar studies by, for example, Monsanto have gone for only 90 days. Basing her project on photographs of the diseased rodents, she painted a screen of the kind you would find at a fun fair with cut-out ovals for faces, and titled it Corn Porn. The screen was then brought to various venues, farmers’ markets and the like, and people were invited to play and to consider the possibility that if GMOs can make rats ill over time, they can do likewise to us. This piece, Corn Porn, along with a body of paintings from the last few years, makes up an exhibition of work entitled, “Fixations,” at Columbia Green Community College (CGCC) in their Foundation Gallery from October 23 through November 25.
The route that brought McNulty from Tufts University, where she earned her BFA, to her art practice in the Catskills was a circuitous one. After college she moved to New York to a job as an au pair and with a plan to get her life as an artist up and running. Scraping by in the usual fashion of starter artists, she was persuaded by a friend, Bez Occo, to help silk-screen some T-shirts to sell on the street in front of the Metropolitan Museum. To their great surprise the designs took off and soon they were “in business.” Before long they were living the life that most young designers can only dream of: participating in fashion shows at the Mud Club, making outfits for Meat Loaf’s back-up singer, for Hall and Oates, and for The Public Theatre. Their designs were in the windows of Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Fiorucci, and Bendel’s, and they were featured in Newsweek along with such fashionistas as Betsy Johnson. However, by the time I came across her, that life was the stuff of anecdote; she had become a card-carrying Hudson Valley artist whose concerns could not be further from the light fantastic of that city world of nightclubs and glitterati-filled parties.
I was first introduced to McNulty’s work in 2012 when we were fellow-exhibitors in SUNY New Paltz’s Dorsky Museum’s annual showcase of Hudson Valley artists. I was particularly struck by her contribution: a large latex painting on unstretched canvas, entitled, Major Credit Cards Accepted, and was thrilled to be given an opportunity to revisit it in this new exhibition. This painting explores Big Gas and Oil’s appropriation of our shores – in this case, the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf is federally owned and is the ninth largest body of water in the world whose coastal wetlands serve as an essential habitat for numerous fish and wildlife species including sea turtles. It is often referred to as the “Mediterranean of the Americas”. McNulty’s painting is an aerial depiction of the Gulf with a large sea turtle at its center. Laid over the whole canvas is a grid dividing the area into squares in each of which is written the name of an oil company. Sprinkled over the surface of the image are little fire symbols made from bright gold leaf. Although McNulty concedes that this grid is her own construct and not based on the actual division of the Gulf for off-shore oil drilling, it is the case that, with the exception of the Eastern Gulf (i.e. the coasts of Florida and Alabama), the area is divided into leased or leasable blocks for energy exploration, and oil and gas remain, by far, the largest presence in the Gulf. (There is some good news however which is that, in 2009, President Obama announced a “Renewable Energy Framework” that established a program to grant leases, easements, and rights-of-way for renewable energy development activities.) McNulty’s painting is an eloquent comment on the monetization of our natural resources and the disregard for indigenous species.
McNulty’s images tend to combine disparate images or elements that give pause; she often incorporates words and notations in the work, and atomic numbers from the periodic table are a recurring motif. When I learned that she was about to have a solo exhibition in Hudson at CGCC’s Foundation Gallery (incidentally a really lovely airy exhibition space located in the arts building), it seemed like the right time to put a spotlight on her and subject her to my ten questions for artists, to wit:
Claudia – You were on a roll in the fashion world. Why did you abandon it?
That was a crazy fun ride — fashion and art were fused. But it was not a world I had ever imagined or desired. It left me no time for anything else and so eventually I stopped.
At what point did you make painting your primary focus?
I was offered a one man show in SOHO and then I won a painting grant, a Traveling Fellowship Award from The Museum School, and left New York.
And was that when you moved to the Catskills?
I had lived in NY for over 10 years and had never been upstate! Then a friend got married and moved to Greene County — they had barns that they needed help renovating. I lived and worked for them in exchange for studio space and board. I absolutely loved my life and living up here. So I gave up my Soho loft and New York, and never went back!
Your work has for some time focused on food politics, animal rights, and the environment. Was your work always infused with political issues?
Funny, I do not think of my work as political. I have always just been responding to the things happening around me. It’s probably fair to say that the nature of life and art is both political.
Your drawing and paintings often include elements from the Periodic Table, can you tell me about that?
They are universal symbols that, to me, express a Buddhist perspective and suggest a collective unconsciousness. I feel at the most fundamental level of life, there is no separation between us and the environment.
What can we expect from this new show?
My paintings are pretty large in scale. This exhibition is made up of older pieces that will be familiar to some people and new work, so it will be interesting to see how they hang together — I hope as a group they will create a fun and energized space.
That sounds great and a good opportunity for people who don’t know your work to get a handle on it. What artists, living or dead, inspire you?
So many. The short list would be Neo Rausche, Nick Cave, Kara Walker, Jenny Holzer, Eric Fischl, Rauschenberg, Johns, Piero della Francesca, Charles Birchfield, Sargent, Louise Bourgeois, Tantric art, old Japanese prints, Lucian Freud – and many contemporary artists, whose names I can’t remember right now – all inspire me! Also music, especially good lyrics, inspires me.
Which living artist would you like your work to be displayed alongside?
I really enjoy the huge community of artists up here [in the Hudson Valley], and it is always fun showing with my artist friends and neighbors.
What do you like the most and the least about being an artist?
I like having the luxury of exploring thoughts. What I like least is always struggling financially and feeling I have little power and influence because of it.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
What would I be? I hate to think! What would I like to be? I’d be a performer – a talented one with musical skills, perhaps a violinist. Or I would make a living dancing and singing! Or I’d be an historical scholar. One that people would listen to!
Of course they would listen to you. Claudia, thank you for submitting to this interrogation and see you at the opening.
Claudia McNulty’s exhibition, “Fixations” , will have it’s Opening Reception on Thursday, October 23 from 12:30 to 1:30 pm. at the Foundation Gallery of Columbia Greene Community College, 4400 Route 23, Hudson, NY. 12534. The exhibition runs through November 25
The Foundation Gallery is located in the Arts Center at the CGCC campus. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday by appointment. For more information, call: 518.828.4181, extension 3241
McNulty’s work can also be viewed on her website.
Featured image: GMO Cardinal, 2012. Latex on canvas, 54 x 56”
All images are courtesy of the artist.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company—as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: clairelambe.net/