Jeff Molloy: Beyond the facade

By Christine Clark, May 2011

Boldy coloured and sculpturally complex, Jeff Molloy’s new work comments on Cuban realities.

It’s a grey, misty afternoon and I’m standing with a small group of foot passengers, all of us with either backpacks or duffel bags, waiting for the boat to dock at Gabriola and bracing ourselves for the inevitable bump against the pilings.

I’m here to meet Jeff Molloy, to visit his studio and to talk about his recent paintings, a series he calls Fachada Cubano (The Cuban Façade). He’s been working hard in preparation for his upcoming show at Winchester Galleries, which runs from May 7 to 28, and although the studio has (as he told me) been recently swept, there are the tell-tale signs of creativity everywhere, and especially on the walls. 

Before moving to Gabriola Island five years ago, Jeff and his wife Kathryn (who was the Executive Director of the Sierra Club for many years) lived in James Bay where they raised their three kids. He still speaks fondly of his early art studies with James Graham and Zane St Philip, way back in 1995 at the (short-lived) Victoria School of Contemporary Art. Later, he went on to study at the Victoria College of Art (where I first met him) under Joe Kyle and Robin Mayer; after graduation, he ran the Gallery at the Mac for almost a decade, and was a co-founder of the James Bay Art Walk. Over the years, Molloy has had numerous exhibits and won several awards.

Molloy was (and is) a well-known and active participant in the Victoria arts scene, but for Molloy, moving on is one of the greatest measures of success in art (and in life). He says, “I think that’s the key, you have to keep moving, you have to keep growing, otherwise you’re cheating yourself.”

His new studio on Gabriola is well heated and redolent with the heady aroma of turps and damar and oil, and because Molloy works in encaustic, there is also the smell of wax. He uses “a pretty standard encaustic mixture…85 percent beeswax, 10 percent microcrystalline wax and 5 percent damar…[as well as] some carnauba wax on the bigger pieces.” He’s got a collection of electric frying pans and old crock pots to create his wax colours, and a variety of brushes and homemade tools to apply and manipulate the wax once it’s laid out on the support. 

Encaustic painting is an incredibly enduring technique; there are examples of Egyptian mummy paintings done in encaustics from as far back as 100AD. This is an important consideration for Molloy. He remarks that, “The only true judge is time; if you create things that resonate with people, then they will protect them from destruction. The longer they survive, the more important and valuable they become.”

He’s also currently working with plaster, another traditional art material. The Sistine Chapel, for instance, is made up of frescoes, which by definition are paintings applied to fresh plaster, but in typical Molloy fashion, he has experimented with the medium and developed a new technique. He pours plaster onto sections of either burlap or carpet, and once the plaster sets, he stains it with oil paints and then transfers laser print images onto the surface. He uses time-tested materials, but he’s not satisfied with the same old, same old. It is in the re-thinking and the manipulating of the physical foundations of art that Jeff Molloy is most profoundly creative.

About his newest paintings he says, “I went to Cuba this past January [and] I was enamoured by the colour and geometry of their crazy houses, and wanted to produce work that rode the line between realism and abstraction.”

The encaustic pieces in particular are boldly coloured and riveting in their sculptural complexity; it’s difficult to determine the difference between the actual and the painted shadows, and there are little doors and windows built into some of the paintings that open to reveal unexpected interiors. The work is incredibly well built; every piece a beautiful object, looking both ancient and as if it could last forever. 

He says, “On a number of occasions I saw people carrying highly decorated cakes through the street…When I say decorated I mean decorated, an artist gone wild with a piping bag and a range of pastel-coloured icings. My goal with the [paintings] was to make them cake-like. I imagined cakes decorated as Cuban façades turned sideways hanging on the wall.”

Jeff Molloy refers to himself as a farmer of art, but farming seems too stationary a metaphor. Really he’s a traveller, always exploring, always searching for truth. Standing in the studio on a chilly West Coast day, I could literally feel the warmth and beauty of tropical Cuba just emanating from his paintings, but as Jeff points out, “Cuba itself is a façade; things aren’t as they seem. From the Cubans’ point of view, they are imprisoned by the regime.”

He says, “It’s common to see people carrying…birdcages through the streets. Nobody talks about it [and] it doesn’t show up in travel books. As it turns out these little birds are important symbols for Cubans. [They mean] that a family member has been imprisoned for political reasons. The Cubans believe that when the canary [is freed], then their loved one will also be set free.”

In this big old world, we’re all travellers through time and through space. Some of us are happy with pretty pictures; some of us, like Jeff Molloy, need to go beyond the façade.

 

Fachada Cubana (The Cuban Façade) runs from May 7-28 at Winchester Galleries, 2260 Oak Bay Avenue. Reception May 15, 1-5pm. www.winchestergalleriesltd.com, www.molloy.ca. 

Christine Clark is a Victoria-based artist and writer, currently preparing for a group show at the Slide Room Gallery (May 7).