The contemplative silence of Christopher McNulty’s exhibition “Days” always seemed in danger of being ruptured by sound. If it had had a sound track, it might be Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” just because the chorus—“there ain’t no time to wonder why/whoopee we’re all going to die”—might be enough to offset the finality of McNulty’s artist’s statement. In a wall text, it explained that these works are an ongoing visual investigation of the probable number of days that he has left to live. This number was derived from a visit to an actuary, and it serves as the foundation from which McNulty inhabits an artistic space somewhere between probability and, to use his term, vanitas.
The exhibition at the University of Montevallo in Alabama consisted of 12 works on paper completed between 2006 and 2008. Varying in size and media, each explores the single idea of mortality through pattern and repetition. The works, generally executed on square sheets of paper, range from 18 to 4 feet on a side. They construct an opposition of simple geometries—the circle and the square. His recurring theme of mortality might be morbid were it more apparent, but apart from his statement and the works’ titles, there is no indication that the works serve as the countdown to the finality of his days. What we see is a study in duration, in meditation, and in control.
McNulty uses the circle as a motif regardless of his medium. It is depicted in graphite in 19,476 Days, in ink in 20,183 Days, and literally scorched onto the surface of the paper in 20,270 Days. One might read McNulty’s approaches to his media as forays into his psyche. The circle stands as a symbol of endless beginnings, from the karmic wheel of Hinduism to the sand mandalas of Buddhism to the Ouroboros of Egypt. However, not only does he appropriate its symbolism, he imbues it with emotion.
At times his circles are filled with energy, pressing towards the center, compressing pictorial space, almost seeming to propel his life forward, accelerating time in the same instant that he is inscribing it onto the page. At other times it is almost as if the knowledge of mortality is overwhelming. This becomes tangible in 20,249 Days, one of the largest works in the show, a looming work on white paper that forces its way into the space, its surface punctured thousands of times until it is tattered and torn. McNulty has taken the ingenious step of flipping the piece back to front, making his hand’s action visible, pushing the pattern of the punctures into our space. It is as if time is falling in upon us, and the opening in the paper becomes a gaping wound in McNulty’s past.
He also oscillates between the process and the personal. 20,045 Days, directly across the space from the punctured piece, is composed entirely of his fingerprints. It is here that the action of mark-making is most evident, for here he is marking time with his gesture.
Finally, he makes a nod to the physical world in the spherical piece 20,087 Days, a ball of hot glue that replaces the systematic method of crossing out days on a calendar for a more complex idea of space. What he may want to do is find a way to visually represent the fourth dimension—time—but that option remains elusive in this medium.
In some ways the show’s nihilism becomes optimistic. McNulty blunts the evidence of time’s passing by not arranging the exhibition in descending order—the pieces do not follow a simple pattern from greatest to least number of days remaining. By mixing these, viewers are relieved of the ennui that might result from having to watch this decay and, by extension, dwelling on their own.
In fact, if one were to enter the space without reading the text, it is possible that the gravity of his project might not be revealed. In the end, it is all about shared beauty, and every time he makes a mark on the paper it is his way of making an “x” on the square of a calendar. McNulty understands our end. He simply finds a way to make it visible, palatable, and comprehensible, and to place it on the wall.
Christopher McNulty’s show “Days” was on view at the University of Montevallo gallery in Montevallo, Alabama, January 9-30.
Brett Levine is a writer and curator based in Birmingham.