On ViewFreight + Volume
March 31–April 29, 2023
In Dessert (2023), the final frame of Room 126, an elaborate pastry has been left untouched. A cigarette lays dormant in an adjacent ashtray, its embers long dead. Thérèse Mulgrew developed her new solo exhibition at Freight + Volume by engaging with the tenets of cinema, conceiving of the whole as a short film caught in oil on canvas. What results is an exhibition experience unafraid to employ exactness in service of emotional resonance. To step into the gallery is to concede to a directorial pursuit and submit to the voyeur’s perch.
A man and a woman meet at a motel for the night. Achieving a cinematic tone asks for a number of things: a compelling narrative, a good performance, a well-lit set. Mulgrew and her friend, filmmaker Austin Vesely, spent a night at the Heart O’ Chicago, a motel on the outer reaches of the city, staging and lighting Mulgrew’s “shot list.” The fruits of this meticulous lighting process are apparent in works such as Waiting (2022) and Post Bath Cigarette (2023). In Waiting, a man sits at the intersection of muted, motel-room gloom and the afternoon glow seeping through the window. Yet nothing is obscured in this chiaroscuro: the natural light is soft, and the internal light allows for a sharpness in the grain of the side table, the titles of books (The Comet is Coming!, Heaven Knows What), the unflattering fold of the subject’s trousers (how humanizing is an awkwardly bulged trouser). Post Bath Cigarette offers a frame deeper into the night, when second-tier light sources—a blue television screen, a bathroom door ajar—cloak the room in high-contrast, lingering on dewy skin, dissipating smoke, alert areolas. The magic of set lighting allows for mood, time, and clarity to coexist, but in Room 126, the light is ultimately wielded by the artist’s hand. Mulgrew guides us toward what she wants illuminated, acting as the final light source. We see this in Waiting, where Mulgrew has produced a thin halo of light on the subject’s left shoulder, where body and shadow meet. The eye is drawn to this and to the implication of an implausible shadow, where the features of the face no longer gaze outward in wait, but at an inversed angle back into the room. In this hinge, and in Mulgrew’s manipulation of light and shadow, we enter into Barthes’s filmic third meaning, where image and personal interpretation arrive at significance.
What is it about hotels? Is it their perpetual state of the temporary or perhaps the potential for anonymity? Like much of Mulgrew’s oeuvre, Room 126 is charged with sexual tension, but the project’s cinematic conceit allows for a balanced noir and a narrative arc that is both engaging and delightfully referential. Visual clues of unrest and charged anticipation (hands to furrowed brow, to parted curtain) in Waiting and Waiting II (2022) and the warped perspective of Window (2023) wink to illicit meet-ups from film classics such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Perhaps the most stylistic departure in the show, the flowing water in Hand Wash (2023) has been imbued with a glittery Pop art touch. Here, the perspective alone implicates the viewer: are these our hands?! But more than that, the infusion of sparkle into a work, within a series that has otherwise maintained a style rooted in naturalism, begs the question of how the narrative has left the realm of a “typical” overnight; what sort of emotional or incidental residue might we wish to wash our hands of?
This devious twinkle aside, Mulgrew’s penchant for naturalism is clear. It serves the narrative mission of the series well, allowing the viewer to pick up on the minutiae of the characters’ lives and opening to a larger mystery. It is in the still life of Bedside (2022) and extreme close-up of Champagne Toast (2022) where the mise-en-scène is driven home, and a story of our own making begins to emerge. An analog clock strikes 6:40 on a side table that also supports a vase of fresh flowers, an empty ashtray, and a book of 10000 Dreams. Is this space a realm of dreams or nightmares, of romance or rivalry? Rings adorn significant fingers, but to whom are they promised? The artist admits there is chronological intention to the installation of the works, and as we make our way through the front gallery space, tales of lust and betrayal begin to emerge.
Mulgrew’s work reminds us of the emotional phenomenon often found in cinema: that the specific can also be a mirror to the self, a landscape for our projections. Exactness does not imply a lack of depth or investigative stimulation. In the case of Room 126, we have the chance to impose our romantic histories and desires, our dramatic canon, our suspicions or sense of safety, and decide the fate of two lovers.