Anyone familiar with downtown Wilmington probably knows Darren Mulvenna. For the last five years he’s manned the bar above Caprice Bistro on Market Street. Ironically, he scored the bartending gig when he walked in to inquire about displaying his artwork in the sofa lounge. The pairing couldn’t have been more perfect because, like his expertly crafted cocktails and martinis, Mulvenna’s art intoxicates. His latest collection traverses multi-dimensional dreamscapes, all inspired by social and environmental issues. Folks can see his current show hang one final week at the new Bottega Art and Wine Bar on Princess Street.
Shortly after meeting Mulvenna, seeing his work and discussing the invention of underwater wind machines to present to the judges of “Shark Tank,” it’s clear this guy is a surrealist. A cultural movement that began in the 1920s—with the aim to coalesce dreams with reality in art and writing—surrealism always features an element of surprise often created by strange, implausible scenes from everyday objects. Good reference points can be seen in the melting pocket watches in Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” or the symbol-rich self-portraits by Frida Kahlo. As a child Mulvenna drew lots of repetitive images and partially transfigured animals, such as a cat with an Escher-esque stairway for a tail and people climbing to the top.
His current self-titled show highlights the unconscious undercurrents of the movement. Each piece expresses such compelling imaginative force that offering up interpretation is nearly impossible. “When you hang art, you are hanging ideas,” Mulvenna explains. “What’s important to me is not keeping those ideas in a closet somewhere.”
Bottega’s new location now boasts almost double the wall space as their previous venue. This proves a plus for Mulvenna whose canvases easily exceed two arm lengths. Painting small is a task, he explains. Working with larger canvas is less claustrophobic and provides room to explore.
Self-taught, Mulvenna approaches most paintings like a sculpture. He immediately creates the subject or background with layers of acrylic paint. Later, he returns to reverse “cut” or “chisel” away at the piece, by adding more layers and glossing over any imperfections; however he begins and ends, his imagination is always in tow.
“My paintings usually start with a feeling, an idea, or a thought that is usually pushed into a box and hidden away only for me to remember,” Mulvenna reveals. “Then, I torture myself with experimental painting techniques until something appears out of the clouds.”
Some of his best work derives from nature. A toddler-sized piece called “Polar Bear Displacement Replacement” was inspired by a recent article about a starved polar bear found dead in Svalbard, Sweden. The bear reportedly perished due to the lack of sea ice—a basecamp for hunting seals in the Arctic, fueled by global climate change. “Replacement” is Mulvenna’s interpretation of rebirth and entering a serene environment.
In it a healthy polar bear traipses through the swirling dark matter of a primitive, cosmic landscape. The abstract aftereffects of his cutting technique is visible in the vibrantly pigmented aurora that blankets the upper portion of the canvas. Bubbles float languidly through the atmosphere, acting as a stark reminder that while spheres are a strong form, bubbles can burst at any time.
While environmental issues are often an inspirational springboard for the artist, painting is his statement. “I think painting [and] photography are a good way to catalog what’s going on now,” he says. “Art is preserved and in museums partially for its beauty, but also because of the story it tells of that time period. [E]ven if [the message] is abstract, we retain thoughts [and] emotions, about the current climate of the political, environmental, sociological situations in our work.”
The community is an inspiration to him, too—especially after having set roots here for the past 12 years. Since then, Mulvenna’s held shows from the Cotton Exchange to the Art Factory. He currently curates all of Caprice Bistro’s shows, too. In fact, the concept behind “Ava’s World” began as picture of a little girl that a patron at Caprice showed him one evening. The 36-by-30-inch canvas is his newest work at Bottega and is outside his normal realm of idea sharing. Here, he tackles storytelling, and the the viewer is able to see a world building from the perspective of a small child, painted with photographic precision. A ginger-haired girl in a blue fairy dress leans against a tree and reaches into the darkness beyond. A whirling portal radiates from her pointed finger that transforms the elements of nature—from leaves to water to koi fish—all cycling into one another.
“I think anytime you show your artwork anywhere, it’s good for the community,” he tells. “You get your ideas across and obviously highlight what you’ve been thinking about.”
Like the hallucinatory films of Terry Gilliam, or the medieval fantasy world in “A Game of Thrones,” Mulvenna’s art has a way of scooching onlookers right to the edge of reality where the belief that “this could really happen” dangles like a carrot from a stick. It’s a paradox we should all try munching on from time to time. Otherwise, our brains will find more uninteresting ways to fold in on us.
Looking to the future, Mulvenna would like to take an art sabbatical to Samoa. While visiting the volcanic paradise, he intends to study the effects of Westernization on the indigenous culture from an environmental point of view—although, there’s no set date for his trip. However, his show closes at Bottega next week; catch it while you can!
Bottega • 122 Princess St.
Mon.-Wed.: 4 p.m. – 2 a.m.
Thurs.-Fri.: 1 p.m. – 2 a.m.
Sat.-Sun.: noon – 2 a.m.