AFTER THE DELUGE
written by Richard Brown, 2009
Like a flash flood, Mark Mullin’s new drawings and paintings come as a surprise. Washed away are the highly delineated forms of his earlier work, the thick tight weaves of paint, the carefully organized deep and shallow spaces, the riot of competing colours. What remains in these new works gives the same feeling as stepping outside after the passing of a sudden summer thunderstorm—everything is wet and steaming, cool and warm, stripped and rearranged, littered with partly recognizable bits of debris.
The paintings have a kind of wetness, both in imagery and feel. In Loomings a shiny wash of grey slides beneath the thin pale blue slick of a waterfall, damp violet clouds coalesce into small groups, wet looking weaves of paint dissolve back into the grey wash. Like the cycle of water itself, Mullin’s imagery and forms evaporate, condense and flow into one another. Submergencies looks cloud or storm-like, but seen from the trailing side, its large turbulent twists of paint charging off to inflict damage elsewhere. These swirls are thin, somewhat spent, the result of paint applied and wiped away. Thin too, with more paint removed than remaining, is the knot of transparent purple goo that burps out of its parent cloud. Even the early work in the series, Gadgetry, submits to the flood—while a couple of oily clouds drain their thick contents, three characteristic stenciled circles sink out of sight the bottom edge of the painting.
It’s a lot of fun, when looking at Mullin’s paintings, to assign names and narratives to his lexicon of quirky abstract forms. He encourages it with his titles, loaded as they are with curious associations and verbs. Running into friends and colleagues at the show, no one can resist pointing out what they think of as sulfurous jets, bubbling liquids, and hissing vapors. Indeed the conversations are instructive in dealing with Mullin’s complex and demanding works. As we compare ideas and notes, the metaphors gradually gel.
Through all this flooding and washing away the central concern of the work is articulated—that of absence. Absence permeates these paintings and drawings like a hazy drizzle. Plotting When Falling and Loomings each have empty centres, their imagery, marks and forms pushed toward the edges of the canvas. Submergencies’ knot is in the middle of the work, but it’s merely residue left over from the removal of a greater volume of paint. The two small “portraits”, Basement Angel and You Say Ghost, I Say Atmospheric Fiction, indicate another kind of emptiness despite the forms that occupy the middle of the canvases: an angel, a ghost, both only partly visible fictions, more imagined than real, and lacking corporeal substance. Depending on one’s belief system they are apparitions of what might linger after the real physical body’s departure. Angel and ghost, by definition, are absence made present.
More absences present themselves in the drawings. They are composed mostly of small empty ovals, each one a delicate pencil tracing, repeated over and over. Amid these ellipses are other globular shapes and tiny connective tubes. Mullin crowds hundreds of these into each drawing, and arranges them into things that might be ponds, clouds and marshy landscapes. One work, Narrative Cluster, seems to reference a comic book thought balloon, and, like so many ideas, is more volume than mass. Similar to the other drawings in the series it’s built out of countless intersecting ovals—ochre in this case—one big empty thought containing a million other empty thoughts. It’s richly poetic to make such intelligent work about subject matter this contradictory, difficult and resistant to representation.
In Gentle Architecture the small ellipses together form a larger image of themselves, complete with an empty centre, the individual units determining the architecture of the collective. Water Finds Its Way appears to make a metaphor of countless ripples in a pond during a light rain, while Limbs and Core has the ovals become cells of biological matter. When I go back to my conversations with other visitors each has a different read or narrative they project onto the work and in the end it’s unimportant which one is agreed upon. More significant is the fluid relationship that is set up between the components of the drawings and the variously suggested contents, between signifier and signified. Mullin’s drawings are empty of solidified content and wait instead to hold the viewer’s thoughts. They seem very intentionally like vessels in that way: giving form to, but not predetermining, what is poured into them. But they’re specific vessels, they’ll hold some things better than others, and I think in this case they do a pretty good job with all things absent or wet.
Lastly, what about the odd one out, the painting Finger and Kane? The most watery of them all, it practically looks like a deep sea dive with ascending bubbles or glow-in-the-dark creatures, undersea vents and clouds of squid ink. The title, Mullin reveals during a studio visit, refers to Bill Finger and Bob Kane, co-creators of Batman—the comic book that is, not the movie—and that the work’s colour palette is entirely determined by the figure of Batman in costume. These colours are re-imagined as a dark and liquid abstract space. Yet despite these two key signifiers, the title and the colour, the link back to the signified comic book character seems utterly broken. Until, that is, one takes into consideration a larger view. As a kid Mullin’s first interest in art came through comic books, like it did for so many of us males of a particular generation. Then, either gradually or all of a sudden, that interest shifts to a more sophisticated art, the stuff one is exposed to in art schools and graduate programs, and with it comes the modifying one’s taste and distancing oneself from the past. Finger and Kane acknowledges what was lost in that process, what became absent, and through its fluidness reconnects Mullin’s earliest passions of childhood with those of his adulthood, those of abstract painting.
What gets dissolved into the mix of a heavy rain? What is washed away and what bits of debris, from who knows where, are left behind? Mullin is the first one out after the deluge, picking his way through a rich soggy world, looking for things he might recognize and remember, unashamed and making no apologies for what he finds.