This year begins with stunning solo exhibitions featuring two of this movement’s greatest contemporary artists - Helen Rae at The Good Luck Gallery in Los Angeles and Marlon Mullen at JTT in New York. No longer emerging, these are Rae and Mullen’s fourth and third major solo exhibitions respectively; both exhibitions feature new bodies of work offering distinctive approaches to the re-imagining of found imagery through abstraction.
Helen Rae’s new drawings are as gorgeous as ever; conceptual and technical considerations aside, they possess the inherent vibrancy of Rae’s singular creative vision, her forceful, yet elegant hand, and sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities. As the complexity of her work increases, the tension she cultivates between representation and abstraction is amplified. Where the image becomes cacophonous and indecipherable, graphite and colored pencil marks fill the surface. Within the flat picture plane, irregular patterns and figures of distorted proportions begin to assert themselves - the emergence of a photographic sense of depth and form that is striking. Depictions of figures submerged underwater in this series prove to be a compelling progression for Rae, as well as the continuation of motifs from previous work, such as faces obscured entirely by garments or large objects.
Similarly, the selection of recent paintings by Marlon Mullen at JTT exhibits a focused development in the nature of his practice, its mechanisms, and promise; the directness of his earnest approach remains the strength of this work. Distinguished from many contemporary abstract painters, there is neither decorative flourish, nor convoluted experiments with process or application. Mullen’s abstraction is pure - thick brush strokes are applied slowly and methodically to render curvilinear, textured forms in a manner that grants deference to the nature of acrylic; translucent pigments are layered over the opaque, which accumulate in slight mounds around the edges. Source imagery is not a basis that informs the work, but it instead serves as an aesthetic catalyst for Mullen’s process of reinvention. The interaction between image and text becomes a more complex relationship than the actual Art in America cover he borrows from; the cascading pink, red, white, and orange stripes overlaid with fragments of text creates a nuanced composition of intricate, interlocking shapes, resulting in a surprising tension and physicality. The brilliance of these paintings lies in Mullen’s ability to remain true to both his source imagery as well as the trajectory of his process.
Just a few years ago, the idea that artists with developmental disabilities working in progressive art studios could develop serious careers as contemporary artists seemed idealistic and almost unattainable - not just as novelties in museums, group exhibitions, or outsider art spaces - but regarded with the respect the work deserves through solo exhibitions, gallery representation, and prominent museum collections. With the current, global rise of regressive hate movements, right wing authoritarianism, destabilization of democracy, and rapid decline of the habitability of our planet, it’s easy to become apathetic or cynical. These contemporary icons of the progressive art studio movement, however, demonstrate the great promise of inclusive culture - highly original ideas and fascinating new paradigms for understanding and defining art-making.
Marlon Mullen (born 1963) maintains a prolific painting practice at NIAD in Richmond, California. 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 exhibitions at NIAD, JTT, Adams & Ollman, Jack Fischer Gallery, Atlanta Contemporary, and White Columns. Group exhibitions include Guerneville organized by Gerasimos Floratos and Ross Simonini at NIAD, Way Bay 2 at the Berkeley Art Museum, Summer Exhibition at Sorry, We’re Closed in Brussels, NADA Miami with White Columns, and Under Another Name organized by Thomas J. Lax at the Studio Museum of Harlem. Mullen is the recipient of a 2014 Wynn Newhouse Award.
Helen Rae (born 1938) has attended First Street Gallery Art Center’s studio in Claremont and Upland, California since 1990. She has exhibited previously in solo exhibitions at The Good Luck Gallery and White Columns in New York, in addition to group exhibitions throughout the United States, Scotland, Belgium, Japan, and Paris. Rae is the recipient of a 2018 Wynn Newhouse Award.
Marlon Mullen: 2017 - 2018 continues at JTT in NYC through February 17.
Helen Rae continues at The Good Luck Gallery in LA through February 24.