New York

Marlon Mullen, Untitled, 2018, acrylic on linen, 30 × 30 1⁄4".

Marlon Mullen, Untitled, 2018, acrylic on linen, 30 × 30 1⁄4".

Marlon Mullen

JTT

Marlon Mullen begins by painting words, performing an act that neither comes from nor returns to reading. The artist has autistic spectrum disorder and suffers from expressive aphasia; he rarely uses spoken or written language to communicate. His voice, though, is coherent and glorious. This was Mullen’s third solo show at JTT.

In the late 1960s, California governor Ronald Reagan deinstitutionalized many of those diagnosed with mental illness; as US president, he continued in this vein and shifted responsibility for the mentally ill to the states, leaving thousands with limited options. In response, the artist Florence Ludins-Katz and her husband, the clinical psychologist Elias Katz, founded a series of art centers, starting with Creative Growth in Oakland, California. Then, in 1985, they established the Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development (or NIAD) Art Center in Richmond, California. In 1986 Mullen, a resident of the city, began working there. His art was shown primarily in West Coast galleries until 2011, when curators Matthew Higgs and Lawrence Rinder put some of his paintings in “Create,” a touring group exhibition that started at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

A few years ago, a friend of NIAD’s director of exhibitions Tim Buckwalter donated a number of banker’s boxes of art magazines to the center, mostly copies of Artnews and Art in America, and they’ve been Mullen’s inspiration ever since. His JTT show was devoted to pieces made over the past two years, featuring ten paintings from 2017 and eight created during 2018.

Mullen works by looking down at his canvas, which he lays flat on a table; sometimes he mixes liquid hand soap with his acrylic paints. When he transfers text from source material to his artwork, words sometimes lose a letter; the images, though, retain their color. Sarah Charlesworth’s Untitled (Voyeur), 1995, was reproduced on the cover of the July 1998 issue of Art in America. In Untitled, 2018, Mullen takes the curtains and telescope from Charlesworth’s photo and melts them. The deep reds and lemon yellow of the original are intensified, with bits of gesso poking through. Wormy brushstrokes transform the curtains into a turbid field, while the telescope is exploded into gray and golden shapes that resemble an elephant as much as they do the magnifying instrument. The cover headline and the magazine price all become roughly the same size, equally important—or not.

Isolated or in tandem, Mullen’s paintings radiate. In the 2018 images, the words are more distinct, outlined and sharp. His practice of positioning the letters first means that the subsequent layers of paint end up encroaching on the text, like a bright ooze rising to cover rows of metal type. The artist is fond of bar codes, and when he portrays covers with mailing labels, the parallel black hash marks often become the dominant element.

His paintings make all of his sources look pale. The cover of a 1998 museum guide—nothing but a big red 98 slapped onto a blue background—becomes a variegated cavern of crimson. When he takes on a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting from a 1993 Art in America, Mullen manages to dissolve one of art’s loudest voices into a play of blocks, strips, and twigs. Untitled, 2017, begins with an Artnews cover portrays a pelican with a beak full of flora and fauna. In that scenario, Mullen finds (maybe) an electric carrot peeler and several dotted shapes, the items arrayed with dignity and elegance. The clock is ticking—which magazine will be the first to run a Mullen cover?