New York

James Mullen

Sorkin Gallery

James Mullen’s first solo exhibition consisted of large oil paintings made between 1983 and ’86. Like a number of other artists in his generation—he’s in his middle 30s—Mullen examines the origins of Abstract Expressionism, specifically the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning during the ’40s. However, rather than making “simulations” of well-known Abstract Expressionist works, as Mike Bidlo and others have done, Mullen explores such possibilities as the relationship between abstraction and figuration. Consequently, Bidlo’s work has the fashionable look of a “finished” object, while Mullen’s has the unfashionable look of someone scrutinizing the past. The distinction is determined to a large extent by each artist’s relationship to the criticism now in vogue.

Bidlo’s mannerist/conceptual approach results in parodies, while Mullen’s open-ended painterly approach embodies within it a belief in authenticity. And yet, both artists make use of their Modernist forebears. It seems to me that the underlying struggle between Mullen’s insistence on the continuing possibilities of Modernism and Bidlo’s equally adamant insistence on the death of Modernism is one of the central issues in today’s art world. In the ongoing struggle between Eros and Thanatos, Mullen sides with the former. He does so by arguing against our current notions regarding Modernism’s bankruptcy and attempts to posit an alternative.

At first glance, Mullen’s paintings look like they’ve been done by some unknown Abstract Expressionist, someone who might have been on the scene during the ’40s, a friend of Pollock and Lee Krasner, perhaps. And yet, they are not nostalgic. They don’t seem to hark back to the past. Mostly, this is because the artist doesn’t employ a common gestural approach. In the earliest painting in the exhibition, the triptych The Bathers, 1983, the artist deploys dark linear configurations against a lighter, thinly painted ground to suggest a spatial ambiguity that one would not find in an Abstract Expressionist painting. In his later work, Mullen employs a painterly approach, moody primary colors, and linearity to arrive at an overall abstraction that integrates figural elements with the ground. Although large in scale, at no point does the work suggest a heroic subject matter.

Mullen resists the accepted critical stance of postwar art history. He clearly believes that the fashionable fictions about the progress of history—such as formalism’s insistence on flatness, or Baudrillard’s notion of “hyperrealization”—are something to be challenged. At the same time, he has not returned to early American Modernism, as many other artists have done. My one criticism of the exhibition is that Mullen, in his attempt to avoid evolving a signature style, doesn’t always push each painting as far as it could go, for I suspect that he has the ability to transform the intuitive, internal logic of these works into indisputable pictorial fact.

John Yau