POINT AND LINE TO PLAIN: Mark Mullin - Re-Connecting the Dots to the Modernist Legacy

written by Jeffrey Spalding, 2015

Mark Mullin makes seriously stupid paintings. For the past number of years he has pursued the creation of paintings that are just plain awkward. Animated and active, many of the works appear as if their many constituents players are scurrying around to get into formation just in time for the commencement of the aesthetic snap. The playing field is not flat, 2-D and planar, his works burgeon out from the wall, extra thick stretchers propel the painting surface into our face, and lavish impasto paint application bounds off the canvas support. He creates obdurate, physically insistent objects; the paintings cannot be constrained by the fabric of the canvas. Their body language seems to suggest that they are stumbling, fumbling, bumbling their way steadfast towards realization. So is this it? Are they the outcome and manifestation of sheer muscular might? I think not, their construction reveals another knowing reality.

Trained at the University of Alberta, it would be natural for his work to reflect awareness of the grand tradition of modernist formalism that dominated that school; it would be equally obvious that a new emerging artist might wish to distance himself as much as possible from that bastion of elegant abstraction. Perhaps Mullin cuts a middle ground?

A quick re-telling of his preferred palette and modus operandi send us off rapidly to the world of the hip street smart art of Los Angeles. His world is not one of classic artist’s supply store primary pigments; he embraces strident colours of our time ---neon florescent, graffiti, lurid, acrid combinations that are as unlikely as they are disconcerting. Since the 1978 Whitney Museum “Bad Painting” exhibition many artists have conspired to make a virtueof the appearance of an attitude of ineptness, casualness, clumsiness, clunkiness and a flagrant disregard for the tastes of its audience (we all know the drill: Jonathan Lasker, Peter Halley, Ross Bleckner, David Urban, Peter Schuyff, in the spirit of Philip Guston, you get the picture?). Mullin’s abstract paintings are of our day. Their postures point us towards youth culture, irreverence, playfulness, risk-taking and sheer spunk. So why won’t I settle into the
starting gate? This characterization seems just too pat. Perhaps there is sleight of hand at work? Mullin has us looking to east L.A.; maybe we need to be looking to Provincetown?

At their heart, Mark Mullin is making figure-ground, relational pictures. Their compositional decisions are quite classic and in effect reflect the teachings of the great painter and leader of the Hans Hoffmann School of Art, Provincetown, Massachusetts. The structure of Hoffmann’s paintings has some bearing here. Backgrounds are just that, stained, constrained in colour as supports for more flamboyant thickly painted shapes that hover on top of the painterly
atmosphere. Should we keep looking here? Perhaps Mullin’s new art owes something to skipping backwards over top one generation to re-engage with a prior: Joan Miró, William Baziotes, Stuart Davis, Alfred Jensen and Arshile Gorky’s “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb”. In Canada, the idiosyncratic abstraction of Harold Town’s “The Great Divide” 1965 and mid- 1960s William Ronald abstractions, seem more in the spirit than other contemporary examples.

In the works for this current exhibition, I contend that Mullin has indeed struck a new path. The earlier works benefitted from and relied upon being quirky and irreverent, (perhaps even a bit self-consciously goofy). This series of works shows a more confident artist, not needing to demonstrate his youthful rebellion, but instead quietly, introspectively grappling with making compelling paintings. Can painterly command be radical? Can beauty be relevant? I think we see that it can.

Jeffrey Spalding is an artist, author and has served as Director at major art museums. He was President, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, awarded the Order of Canada (2007) and recently named Adjunct Professor, University of Calgary.