With this exhibition of paintings, Martin Mull reacquaints Los Angeles with mid-century America; the social disease of our cultural adolescence. Mull stirs up elements of our remembered history from a largely fictional America in the fifties, sourced from collected photographs of the era. His compositions are rife with buried tensions and tattered aspirations, with a faint echo of familiarity.
Working from found images of family America, Mull employs a craftsman’s approach to painting. Starting with a coat of rabbit-skin glue and three coats of white lead, the artist paints each day by trade. “Once I understand what I want to make it’s extremely important to make it. I am a worker making an object.” This dispassionate approach to his portraits of our collective subconscious gives Mull a clearheaded view of a very unclear landscape.
Front and center in the exhibition is “Comedian,” a dark portrait divided in three sections. To the left, a television throws the light of used-car sales across the canvas. Mull’s deep shadows portend ominously, high-contrast shafts of light set the stage for intense drama. Leaning forward in his chair, the Comedian himself sharply undercuts the tension singing in the air. He is the center of attention, but is also the crux of inaction. Behind him, in the right third, a woman lies fully dressed in bed, face covered by her hand. It is unclear if she hides pain, tears, or anger. What is abundantly clear is the drama set up by these three stages, and then set off by Mull’s decision to call it “Comedian.” There is nothing funny about it, no hint of humor, but somehow Mull’s commentary softens the fear, takes the hardness out, and encourages a lengthy malaise. With all the potential for sound and fury, Martin Mull instead focuses on a single moment, excising both past and future in exchange for an intense look at a small pause.
Martin Mull’s America is a finely blended cocktail, made the way Dad used to make it: not entirely precise and never quite right, but always better than anyone else could make it. The bitterness of failure is somehow more openly tolerated than lack of ambition. In a time when “the American Dream” was being taken out for a spin, insecurity was repressed and the stoics proclaimed that all was just fine. Seething below the seemingly calm subdivisions, however, were untold dramas. In “Sleeper” even the darkest regions of the painting are not black, they are a deep, dark warm gray, not even the deepest of shadows is still. In the foreground a figure rests, the titular ‘sleeper’ one would presume, but as always, this might not be the whole story. Why is he outside, under a tree, with a tidy suburban house behind? The tree points up, out and over the neighborhood, but lays its shadow in equal measure over the house, the lawn and the sleeper. Whether protective or accusatory, Mull does not say.
Educated at the Rhode Island School of Design in the nineteen sixties, Mull’s task, as he puts it, is to “examine an instant.” Many of his compositions are frozen moments that never quite were, combinations of scenes that make sense only in the subconscious. Each image could be a word in a longer story, a scene in a life, but they are incomplete, undefined, and never answered in Mull’s paintings. With a dedication to the craft, Mull paints scenes from the collective subconscious, revealing cracks in the facade.