Maria Brendel Ph.D
"What's in a title," was the question directed to me recently. The title, I replied, provides a larger framework within which art is situated when it is exhibited in a gallery or museum. The title links the various compositions together, gives the canvases a common theme and in addition facilitates a beholder's access to the artwork especially when it is complex through abstraction. Yet a title should never dictate a viewer's engagement into ways of seeing and perceiving except for a gentle (narrational) push because we operate through and within narrative.
Since a title is both written and spoken it is that communicative side of language to which much emphasis has been given since the early years of the Twentieth century. The introduction of the sign system, which is the search for meaning and the interpretative potential of language, developed out of complex levels of thought generated in philosophy and psychoanalysis in that century, through which language took on an enormous importance. The social thinker Walter Benjamin argued that magic, the other side of language, was lost with the advent of the study of the sign. He saw the magic slip away when the split occurred of the sign (word) into signifier (utterance) and signified (meaning). Benjamin, in the 1930s already, observed the waning of magic, that which brings immediacy - the paradisical - which is cognitive and denominative in equal measure.1 He argued that the magic of language (Sprachmagie) with its hues, "colours" and intonations suffered when the communicative side was isolated and given priority. As a result, he placed much responsibility onto the visual arts as the restorer and carrier of magic. This restoration is now taken on increasingly by painting of which the canvases in Lost Horizon are only exemplary.
Tied to the loss of magic is the breakdown of a grand narrative in the Western world (either theological, mythological or literary) as philosopher Jean-François Lyotard puts it, those (visual) stories by which individuals and communities live by and identify with. Much of our current identity is derived from telemediatic tales from which, only fragments can be excerpted, which leaves us often in a state of flux and void rather than with coherence and totality. Narrative fragments electronically and digitally produced provide only virtual realities and seduce us into a sphere where there is no room for touch, except for a phantasmagoria of consumer goods and life styles of unfulfilled desire, but where, interestingly tiny pixelated hands on computer screens remind us of our corporeal presence. Painting, this ancient art practice, which only a decade ago was declared exhausted or even dead by some postmodernists, due to a fascination with media art and photography1s digital supplement, has been given close attention again by critics, art lovers, curators and collectors. In fact painting exhibitions are increasing with retrospectives on the rise of which Gerhard Richter's current show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is one example.2 Into this lineage I wish to place Mark Mullin whose canvases both speak of a Lost Horizon, the point of orientation and totality, thereby foregrounding a problematic while attempting to restore it through manually produced aesthetics - the magic side of language.
As the artist concedes:
"These paintings will attempt to re-address our intimate relationship to the horizon - that interface of space where matter meets nothingness and fullness."
The variant sized square paintings that make up this show are spatially vast so as to enter and linger. As well they are compositionally dense and have a visceral quality to it of touch and bodily traces; all which point to the painter's presence in the canvas - his hands, but ultimately to our physicality. As the paintings' aesthetic fields of dots grids, and colour nuances extend beyond their surfaces, wrapping themselves around the edges, a play is produced; one of abstraction and non-abstraction. The latter kept me spellbound because I could not fully apply Gilles Deleuze, the French theorist's famous line that "abstraction needs to be explained." I realized that Mark Mullin's canvases have narrative traces, which work on the viewer. It is this aspect that makes his paintings so timely, for each canvas compels a narrative engagement that is personal going beyond the visual. It is where one is arrested and made to stand vis-à-vis each tableau so that "writing" one's own story can begin.
His work cannot be taken in at a glance. The paintings are demanding both aesthetically and conceptually, because they stage a presence and perform an act, pushing paint toward the textual of various discourses while incorporating or pointing toward science, literature, play and magic. Indeed, their aesthetic fields are delightful, yet exercise an effective affect on us (the result of an accomplished facility with paint and a theoretical deposition) where abstraction is used in order to defy abstraction, all the while seducing our mind and senses. Such seductive scripts epitomize, uncannily, Lyotard1s philosophies of little stories and performativity. Lyotard explains that through colour and light our sensory body is besieged in a performativity while the mind and the unconscious are set in motion to produce a somatography, 3 which in the work of Lost Horizon may prompt a state of jouissance (Benjamin1s magic) in part due to the painter's choice of chromatics and patterns which are relational to cloud, water, sun, earth, night.
Understanding the concept of narrativity and the state of language is historically important. For, while we are of an age in which the creation of a grand transcendental narrative is no longer possible, as Lyotard advances, the Œwriting1 of small stories is of utmost importance. As people, both individually and socially, we need to explain ourselves through stories and to experience magic because we define ourselves therein. It is this recognition and possibility in Mark Mullin1s art that strikes me as most significant.
1. Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (Frankfurt