Art in Focus: How Artist Emily Mullin Embraces Joy and Imperfection Through Ceramics
A rainbow of ceramic vessels popping with personality line every shelf and windowsill in Emily Mullin’s art studio, located in former naval officer quarters in Brooklyn Navy Yard. Laden with ornate elements — such as curvy handles that seem like sassy hands on hips — the exuberant vases and amphoras almost seem to dance, bumbling and preening, to the spacey, bleep-bloop synth tunes wafting from speakers. The album Saturno 2000, plays a compilation of rebajadas tunes, a style popularized by sonideros (sound-system operators) in Mexico in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Sonideros traveled extensively to collect eclectic records to play at improvised parties with gear they altered by hand to slow down the tempo, producing distinctive, danceable music. The sonideros’ handmade spirit and wide-ranging influences feel like an apt parallel to how Mullin, 37, works today: gathering visual inspiration from a variety of global sources — costuming and fashion, dance, travel, nature, art and craft history — and infusing elements into her genre-melding art that embraces experimentation, humanity, and the handmade.
Mullin describes her ceramics as assertive, feminine, playful, wonky, and joyful. “But also messy and drippy and unnecessarily decorative — so decorative that it’s sometimes detrimental to the structure of the vessel,” Mullin says. “Like, it's too much and it will break.” But when works do survive her labor-intensive process of hand-building the forms, drying them slowly, firing, glazing, and firing again, the works have a wholly original look, like line drawings or cut paper come to life, pulsing with humanity.
Some of the pots parading through Mullin’s studio will be on view throughout Rockefeller Center until September 5, as the latest installment of Art in Focus, a series produced in partnership with Art Production Fund. Featuring bright pops of colors and bold abstract shapes that draw on the aesthetics of the artist’s ’90s childhood, the exhibition brings together Mullin’s ceramics, photography, and floral elements in a way that she describes as feeling “simultaneously ancient and modern.”
The trio of windows located inside 45 Rockefeller Plaza display an abstract arrangement of vessels. The installation doubles as a slight nod to Mullin’s first job in New York City: designing window displays for Bergdorf Goodman, a rite-of-passage gig for many emerging artists. “Having this work out in public and in a space where I commuted for many years, that’s really exciting,” Mullin says. “ I love the art deco architecture and details and amazing paintings in the interiors and the reliefs. [Rockefeller Center] is really an iconic New York place.”
At Top of the Rock, Mullin’s murals take on a structural quality, mimicking architectural columns. Vinyl murals installed throughout the campus and along the Rink Level walkways feature photographs, made in collaboration with her husband and fellow artist Tony Mullin. The photos feature her still lifes, as well as zoomed-in imagery of her ceramic work that reveal the tactile and handmade qualities of her process: drippy glazes, fingerprints, the canvas texture of her studio’s work surface imprinted on clay.
“I wanted to create an experience with these vessels where you can appreciate the qualities that relate to drawing and painting and handmade, up close,” Mullin explains. “I love handmade objects and their inherent wonkiness and the humanness of them. I don't ever want anything to be too symmetrical or too perfect.”
Born in California in 1984, Mullin grew up as the middle child in an imaginative household. Her father is a screenwriter and playwright, and her mom, a developmental psychologist. “Very emotional parents, a lot of talking about feelings,” she says. “ I think both of them understood the value of art and playing and were just very nurturing creatively.” While in college at Mount Holyoke on an equestrian scholarship, Mullin initially started off as a philosophy major, taking art classes on the side. During her junior year abroad, she studied at Goldsmiths, University of London, and immersed herself in the art world. She says, “After that, I was like, this is definitely what I love to do.”
Mullin moved to New York City in 2007 and eventually settled in Lefferts Gardens, where she lives now. In her early years in the city, her art practice focused on explorations of painting and sculpture. “I've always been interested in in-between places between mediums,” she says. “So, paintings that feel like sculptures or ceramics and sculptures that feel like a painting.”
In 2014, Mullin hit a creative snag. She felt stuck and unenthused about her artwork. Following encouragement from her husband to mix things up and try a new medium, she signed up for a continuing education class in ceramics at LIU Brooklyn, attracted by the reasonable price tag and the emphasis on self-directed learning. She learned how to throw pots on the wheel and started getting excited about hand-building. The class turned out to be the gateway to the next phase of her art career and a source of limitless creative fodder. “I feel like I can make vessels forever,” Mullin says. “I'm always trying to make new forms, experiment with new glazes, new colors, all of that. I could never exhaust the medium.”
The following year, Mullin saw an exhibit of Giorgio Morandi’s modernist artwork at the Center for Italian Modern Art in Soho. The show led her to think about intimate painterly spaces and sparked a new idea: making still lifes, by crafting both set-like scenes and the 3D objects within them. By filling her vessels with flowers and staging them on theatrical custom-made shelves that hang on the wall, Mullin plays with dimensionality and medium and genre, while referencing the rich history of still life paintings.
Adding natural elements to her work has become a hallmark of Mullin’s work. Bringing the outdoors in is something she says that she’s always enjoyed “as a California kid,” and her parents had a thriving garden. “I think of arranging flowers like painting or drawing, with a gestural, linear, bold presence,” she says.“The floral component is a way to create these altars to the natural world. It's a nice way to track the seasons and mark the meaning of a moment.”
When creating new ceramic pieces, Mullin says she thinks of them as character studies, of sorts, or even divas. “They definitely evoke the body for me,” she says. As she starts building a new form, sometimes she'll have an idea of where she wants to go with it. Oftentimes, though, the vessel’s personality will reveal itself as she keeps working. The physical labor of working with clay and the idiosyncratic body-like forms overlap with Mullin’s fondness for New York City’s dance community. Before the pandemic, she’d take three or four dance classes per week, taught by professional dancers. Even though she claims to be a terrible, albeit spirited, dancer in comparison, Mullin says, “I think the body positivity in those classes and the fun and silliness and the attitude and flamboyance and gesture completely relate to these vessels.”
Bringing her life-affirming ceramics to the campus during the lush summer months feels fitting. “It’s a great time of year to have this work at Rockefeller Center,” Mullin says. “The work is all about this sort of explosive blossoming. I think it will be very bright and colorful in those spaces.” During a season of fresh flowers and life unfurling in full color, Mullin’s artwork invites viewers to embrace joy and imperfection. As she says, “There's just something so human and endearing and charming about a ceramic vessel.”
Emily Mullin’s artwork will be on view around the Rockefeller Center campus through September 5, 2022. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.