Marlon Mullen’s second solo exhibition at JTT Gallery is an expansive collection of recent works by this San Francisco-based hero in the progressive art studio movement. Mullen’s abstractions are more delicate in terms of color and design than previous paintings, creating the effect of being more reduced or refined, although they aren't any less complex - colorful, lush, and satisfying. Heavy, intentional brushstrokes recorded in matte plastic surfaces index Mullen’s distinctive bold, but measured touch. Mullen’s mark-making isn’t concerned with appearing effortless, but leaves a record of the careful labor of seeking and defining a specific image.
The content of Mullen’s work has remained relatively consistent over the course of his career thus far, but as the context in which he is seen has changed, the significance of his subject matter inevitably has as well. Mullen is an autistic artist who is a supported by NIAD, one of the original progressive art studios founded by Elias and Florence Katz in the Bay Area. Over the past several years, NIAD and Mullen have been the quintessential example of such a studio’s role in the ongoing narrative of so-called outsiders merging into the mainstream.
Mullen’s use of art magazines as source material is in part a consequence of progressive art studios’ inherent subversion of traditional ideals of outsiderism; they have long been affiliated with Outsider Art due to disability, but in fact their core intentions are in direct opposition to the historically romanticized notion of outsider artists. NIAD, an exceptionally forward-thinking program, is an environment where artists with disabilities are not only given resources to be artists, but to be a part of the broader contemporary art community, both locally and internationally. The facilitation staff is composed of professionally trained, practicing artists and contemporary art periodicals like those that Mullen references are made readily available. A section of the studio’s gallery space is dedicated to exhibiting local contemporary artists, the intended audience for which is primarily, Timothy Buckwalter explained during a visit, the artists working at NIAD.
In the context of Outsider Art, Mullen’s translations of art periodicals are a subversive element and even an occasional subject of criticism. The way that the content of his work subverts outsiderism may never have had anything to do with his personal intentions, and likewise, the viewer can only speculate about the meaning of his work. Mullen doesn’t speak about content or intention abstract of the works themselves, as the exhibition’s press release explains:
[Mullen] is for the most part non-verbal. It isn’t entirely clear how much he can read in the same sense that you are reading this press release right now, but he certainly has his own understanding of meaning when it comes to words. Specifically regarding the content of his paintings, he has not verbally communicated at length his intent or fascination with the images that he copies. However, his paintings are sufficient in informing us of the nuances of what he sees.
Dana Shutz’ controversial depiction of Emmett Till at this years Whitney Biennial initiated a wide ranging conversation about Identity and culture, the rights of an artist, and significance of their intentions. Schutz apologists framed her as an innocent, individual voice, responding in earnest to an image that affected her. Her critics questioned her authenticity and right to commandeer and redefine something sacred, which she could never really understand. If nothing else, one insight that must be drawn from this controversy is that the narrative of the relationship of an artist’s identity to the nature of a subject is inevitably consequential, regardless of the artist's intentions. Bringing that perspective to works for which the intention of the artist can not be explicitly known, such as Mullen’s, consider how his depiction of the Kerry James Marshall painting as it appeared on the cover of ARTFORUM, provides a vantage point to rethink Mullen’s subject matter, his identity, and his place in the conversation.
From this perspective, an important component of Mullen’s current exhibition, and especially this work, is its role as a representation of the relationship of disability to contemporary art. It seems fair to see Mullen in his version as we see Marshall in the source image. To imagine or wonder to what extent Mullen (by accident or by design) exists in this depiction of a painter, and to consider what intentions and mechanisms his subject becomes a reflection of himself. Whatever Mullen’s intentions, seeing this painting in the unprecedented context of Mullen’s rising career as a nonverbal autistic artist, there are parallels between Mullen and Marshall worth recognizing. In a recent interview published by Interview Magazine, Marshall’s description of his strategy and intentions could also be applied to Mullen’s career as well:
When you see a black figure, the way the critical establishment operated, you can only imagine that figure having a sociological value. They never say the ways in which their aesthetics were equally worthy of consideration. That was the thing that always kept black artists outside of the discourse—not whether the work was relevant, but was it engaged in the modernist and avant-garde practices white artists were engaged in? I think the approach that I've taken, which is fairly instrumental and strategic, is to deploy the principles that the people who theorized the value of artwork said were important.
Marlon Mullen is on view at JTT in NYC through May 7th, Wednesday - Sunday, 11am to 6pm
Marlon Mullen (born 1963) lives in Richmond, California, where he maintains a prolific studio practice at NIAD. Mullen is represented exclusively by JTT in New York and Adams & Ollman in Portland, Oregon. He has exhibited widely throughout the US; previous exhibitions include solo shows at NIAD (2017), Adams & Ollman (2016), Jack Fischer Gallery (2016), Atlanta Contemporary (2015), JTT (2015), and White Columns (2012). Group exhibitions include NADA Art Fair in Miami with White Columns (2014), Under Another Name, organized by Thomas J. Lax at the Studio Museum of Harlem (2014), and Color and Form at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco (2013). Mullen is a 2015 recipient of the Wynn Newhouse Award.