by Sabina Clarke
When I met fine artist Catherine Mulligan at her Northern Liberties studio, I was surprised at how strikingly pretty she is — so different in person from her mesmerizing and unsettling self-portrait featured in the current Women & Biography exhibit at Woodmere Art Museum, currently running through June 1.
For a young woman still in her 20s (she is 27 years old), Mulligan is on a fast track. Her work is in the permanent collections of Woodmere Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and she has exhibited in Philadelphia at the Trust Us, Trust Gallery, the Philadelphia Sketch Club, the Acorn Club, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Main Line Art Center and in Harrisburg at the State Museum of Pennsylvania.
Considered one of the rising young stars of the Philadelphia art scene, Mulligan, who grew up in Nutley, New Jersey, comes from an artistic background. Her mother Ellen is a ceramic artist, and her father Gerard Mulligan was a comedy writer for talk show host David Letterman while her older brother Kevin, a philosophy scholar, is eyeing a possible career in academia.
Mulligan, who describes her style as representational, says she is drawn to the inherent dichotomies and contradictions in life that find expression in her art. Her paintings have many emotional layers, as expressed in the complex emotions captured in her self-portrait at Woodmere Art Museum — now part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Far from being an accurate physical likeness, her self-portrait captures her shifting and conflicting emotions, “It is a chronicle of me as I age, but it is more about capturing real emotions; so it is about aging and expectations I had about myself as a child and how they seem now. I associate what I am wearing with my childhood.
“There is femininity about it, but it is also kind of stark and grotesque; that kind of contradiction always interested me. So I think the emotion of that self-portrait is kind of sad and troubled, but it is also kind of funny and absurd. I want it to be complex in a similar way where you have this mixed reaction to it.”
Mulligan’s path as an artist was determined from an early age. “When I was younger, I was a bit shy, and I guess I felt more comfortable expressing myself this way by making things and showing these things to people because making art is a sort of solitary activity.”
She continued by taking art classes at the Community Center in Nutley and at 18 moved to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). In 2009 she got her certificate from PAFA and in 2010 graduated cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Her influences are the old masters including Jusepe de Ribera, Constable, Chardin, Rembrandt, Frans Hals and de Hooch. Of the contemporary artists, she likes Julie Heffernan, Sigal Tsbari, Justin Mortimer, Catherine Murphy, Ann Gale and Joan Mitchell.
When she is not painting, Catherine works as a hostess in a restaurant.
Among her awards are: the Hobson Pittman Prize in 2008, the Philadelphia Governor’s Award in 2009, the Elizabeth Greenfield Foundation Grant in 2012 and the Maybelle Longstreet Prize in 2013.
Mulligan will be in another juried show at Woodmere Art Museum opening June 14 and a two-person show at the PAFA Alumni Gallery opening in December, 2014. She is represented by the FAN Gallery in Old City.
For more information about the “Women and Biography” exhibit, visit www.woodmereartmuseum.org.