San Francisco

Lee Mullican

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

These are powerful and electrifying paintings. The exhibition is made up of two types of paintings, both exercising a similar palette and technique: short knife-strokes of paint using the whole gamut of reds from dark siennas to bright cadmiums have replaced the dominant yellows of earlier Mullican exhibitions, though there are some golden paintings here, too. One of these types of painting is a saw-tooth repeat pattern reverberating in a sort of hypnotic incantation. Two of these are entitled, suggestively, “Earth Rhythms.” The other sort of painting uses the knife-stroke to form pictographic images, heads, skulls, amorphous demons, a riotous and frenzied world as though the heat and controlled energy of the more incantatory variety had burst into flame.

“Pacific Rhythms” might be regarded as a bridge painting uniting the two variations of style: the painting begins with the saw tooth pattern and rises to a fluid flux of lines, the pictograms as yet only whorls and eddies. In “California Flying,” which also rises from the frieze of incantatory rhythms, the form begins to take shape as a multi-limbed, anthropomorphic form suggesting a Tibetan deity; the painting is an abstract mandala. In the “Arrival of Quetzalcoatl” the woven regularity grows upward and expands into a sort of wood grain complex which in turn has evocative lineaments of the plumed serpent. “Sounds and Stains” reveals the musical character of the work, though the title was unnecessary; it is impossible not to see these paintings as related to the contours of sound. In “Meditations on the Night” these sounds are multiplied into a chorus, as though one were throwing off the focus of one’s attention and hearing all the sounds for miles, the sea, perhaps, and the whispering in the trees (cars on the highway?), everything in primal concert.

It is apparent that these canvases have a mystical intent. The allusions to pre-Columbian and Tibetan imagery suggest that the artist is aware of the hallucinogenic base of the religious experience of both those cultures. And the mosaicing of forms into small parts, and the intensifying of colors, are specific effects of peyotl, the cactus which was basic to the rituals of the more developed Mexican cultures. The artists who have come to be preoccupied with color vibrations and the hypnotic image, have often been those who have taken a long look at the art of those cultures. If we have sometimes wondered how the inquiries of anthropologists into smaller more integrated cultures could apply to our own world, we see here an art form which draws on the wellsprings of former cultures seeking the unities and ritual excitements, and establishing in modern form the oneness with all of nature which was the strength of their understanding.

Knute Stiles