Martin Mull at Spike Gallery

Martin Mull, Parents II (2003), oil on linen,60″ x 72″; courtesy Steve Martin Collection

Here’s a recipe for disaster: Mix the efficiency of James Rosenquist’s neo-Dadaist commentaries on commodity culture with the drab cut-and-paste aesthetic of David Salle; add a dollop of Gerhard Richter’s slick and soulless professionalism; blend, and pepper lightly with Eric Fischl’s ready-made indictments of middle-class America. Place in oven until lukewarm. After 15 minutes (of course), frost with a fine veneer of Pop-wise irony and color it black and white. Then call in Dave Hickey, the contemporary scene’s sultan of smooth, to bless the results: “In this domain, the easy metamorphoses of living creatures into cultural icons into fugitive images and back again,” blah, blah, blah.

You’d never guess that the work under discussion was any good, would you? That turns out to be the case, though how Martin Mull pulls it off is a truly puzzling question. I mean, talk about déjà vu all over again: Mr. Mull, whose paintings are on display at Spike Gallery, has shamelessly co-opted the stylistic shticks of some of the most overrated artists of the last 20 years. (Better known as a comedian, Martin Mull is wise to shtick.)

He seamlessly juxtaposes snippets of paint-by-numbers patterning, family snapshots and sub-par cartoon illustrations. The pictures hint at the surreal but never lose their grounding in the banal here-and-now:  think Francis Picabia meets Ozzie and Harriet. A gray sfumato, clearly approximating mass-produced black-and-white photography, gives the work a grainy documentary feel.

Mr. Mull distinguishes himself from his precursors by actually painting about something: the American Dream. He comments on it cruelly (there’s a predictable intimation of illicit goings-on), yet he also longs for its promise (which is not so predictable). Though glib, the paintings tug at the heart. Their connection to America’s collective memory bank is suffused with a querulous affection. The work admits to emotions that are complicated and real.

I wouldn’t recommend Mr. Mull as an artistic exemplar-exploiting appropriations, twice-removed, is too singular and risky a gambit. But I would recommend the pictures, for their cool dexterity and unexpected emotional heft. They don’t depend on their maker’s renown to put them across–and Mr. Mull puts more across than his pomo kin ever will.

(c) 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 9, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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