New York

Martin Mull

David Beitzel Gallery

Martin Mull would like nothing more than for us to ignore his celebrity. He has repeatedly referred to acting as his “day job,” admitting that earning respect as a visual artist is his highest priority. But Mull’s two careers are of a piece. From ’70s stand-up and roles on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood fright to his mid-’80s cable special The History of White People in America (divided into episodes called “White Religion,” “White Politics,” “White Crime,” and “White Stress”), Mull the actor has focused on white American cultural myths and stereotypes. And Mull the painter brings to bear the same earnest irreverence, seriousness of intent, and dark humor.

Mull usually works on a large scale, in oil on canvas. Seven of his most recent paintings (all works 2000) were on view here, along with a selection of smaller watercolors, his preferred medium when he is on location. At the core of his works are sunny images of white folk that look as if they've been lifted from postwar family magazines like Look and the Saturday Evening Post, publications that staged what came to define the ideal American family: moms proffering cakes, dads in business suits, smiling boys and girls, and animals that accessorize the “white” existence—Labradors, robins, Canadian geese, and cows from the dairyland of Mull’s native Ohio.

Mull’s recontextualization of these stock images is not entirely original: Postwar America has been subjected to a fairly extensive excavation. The funny yet terrifying irony of conformist textbook and magazine images and instructional films like Duck and Cover has generated a cottage industry for everyone from academics to indie-comic artists ever since the late ’60s (and Nixon) blew the lid off the myth of ’50s white America. Nickelodeon provides full evenings of morality plays like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver—hours of entertainment for generations of younger Americans. But Mull's paintings breathe fresh life into the trope. Painted in nostalgic colors (yellowed whites, chalky blues and greens), his landscapes and genre scenes are full of distortions and fragments. Ariadne’s Thread features a prepubescent girl in hula position (sans hoop) sandwiched between two landscapes: the one in which she stands and the inverted suburban house and lawn that serve as “sky.” The smiling mother of Fool’s Paradise III shares canvas space with four supersize animals—two birds, a fox, and a squirrel painted with choppy paint-by-numbers strokes in hues reminiscent of those on flannel sleeping-bag linings.

Mining the veins of banal white culture and turning its landscapes (literally) upside down, Mull transforms the milquetoast creatures of postwar America into exotics, relics of a culture that existed only in magazines, in movies, and on television. In some ways, however, his work is a truly accurate document of that era, since it lays bare the distortions implicit in normalizing one culture—the white American family—at the expense of all others.

Martha Schwendener