John Mullen at Howard Scott

John Mullen, Method of Finding 2, mixed media on canvas; courtesy Howard Scott Gallery

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How surprising is it to learn that John Mullen’s recent paintings are a meditation on the natural world? Very surprising. Oh, you can ascertain images, some more specific than others, in Mr. Mullen’s abstractions–the forest path in Forcing, the cluster of clouds in 96% Carbon and a tumble of geological forms in Yield Up (all 2005). Other pictures feature forms that allude to streams or pebbles or sunsets.

The titles, too, surrender references and intent: Ganges R. refers to the river, Miniature Ice Age to prehistory and Warmest on Record to global warming. Going out on a limb, you could say that Mr. Mullen’s reliance on black and white connotes an environmentalist message: It’s gritty, harsh and, indeed, smoggy character is emblematic of a planet in dire condition.

Mr. Mullen is entitled to his eco-politics, but what makes the work interesting is how unnatural it is. The chosen medium (acrylics, i.e. plastic paint), the process (a systematic placement of controlled incident), the touch (anonymous and secondhand) and the sparse palette (anything but green)–each attribute points to an aesthetic powered by cold calculation. At his best, Mr. Mullen transcends premeditation by thoroughly embracing it. He doesn’t flow like a river; he hums like a well-oiled machine.

The recent work prompts its share of quibbles. How well the paintings are served by the artist’s insistence on a 26-by-20 format is a good question–oftentimes, the images feel ill at ease within the confines of the canvas–and more color would be welcome. But Ganges R. and the lone big picture, Henge Avenue, are smart and tight and snappy in the right measures. They’re enough to make you grant, and then take pleasure in, Mr. Mullen’s naturalist eulogies.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 29, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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