January 6–February 11, 2023
It’s hard not to be charmed by the paintings of Marlon Mullen, which emanate his belief in their material and subject. In an art world that loves to self-pathologize, his self-titled show at JTT stands as a bright light of belief and earnestness that’s hard to come by, especially lately, in a desert of cynicism. Two bodies of his work appear in this show, blending together seamlessly. One is abstract, the other representational, mainly taking the form of art magazine covers.
To bounce from painting to painting and see how Mullen’s impulses repeat over the span of twenty-five years is a joy. The figurative emerges from the abstract, like life out of the primordial ooze. The shift is hardly noticeable but instead is a subtle congealing of elements into recognizable shapes and letters. When comparing two untitled paintings, both from 2016 (all Mullen’s paintings are untitled), the abstract one feels like a prototype. It’s mostly green, with a pink eye shape in the upper right quadrant. The white on the opposite corner is broken up by green teeth and black tally marks that resemble the barcode in the latter.
The second painting is more pointed. The top is a warm purple, with an earthy red ART NEWS matter-of-factly interrupting the pool of pure color. Mullen rarely layers, but when he does (and he does here) it’s effective. Below, jagged green teeth penetrate yellow space. “ARE YOU LOOKING AT PRICES OR ART” black letters ask the viewer. The lack of punctuation feels deliberate, less a matter of running out of room on the canvas and more to heighten the awkwardness of such a direct demand. Viewing this painting, I get the feeling of a parent looking at me over the top of their glasses at the breakfast table, waiting for a response to a question to which they already have the answer.
Color is separate and precise, and Mullen’s cropping and cramming of text are effective and funny. There’s an involuntary crowd participation element that you’re drawn into when mentally completing the end of the “WHITNEY BIEN” at the bottom of Untitled (2015), a simulacrum of an Art In America cover. The fragment serves as an anchor for the viewer, lending the picture a sense of familiarity as it spins out of control. As a mostly bronze, metallic composition, the painting’s proximity to gold makes it look gaudy and vaguely expensive. Small hills of pigment have formed at the borders of where Mullen dragged his brush across the canvas. It feels frantic, like he can’t cover the white of the surface quickly enough.
Mullen’s choice of subject is an acknowledgement that the art press is much more than just magazines, but potent symbols for the art world. Symbols are often multifaceted; their ability to endure contradictions in what they represent to different viewers speaks to their power. Though it may be fashionable to decry the art media’s influence, it’s also not uncommon for the same people who claim it has never mattered to less express frustration or excitement at a given show being reviewed or recommended. Mullen’s recognition of his subject’s importance by making the image an art object turned commodity in a gallery also shortens the distance between art media and art commodity, something that feels like a called shot in the wake of Artforum’s recent purchase by Penske Media Corporation. The news is devastating but unsurprising, another institution now in the loving embrace of private equity. The acquisition was announced about a month before Mullen’s show opened, dramatically shifting the ground beneath these paintings, and a reminder that the context in which work is shown is almost as important as the work itself. Walking through the show, you sense the walls closing in on a freer press that once allowed independent magazines to flourish.
Mullen’s exhibition offers time and space to consider how rapidly the world we know can fluctuate. Things are constantly in flux, and symbols you once looked to with respect or reverence can be bought and sold same as anything else. Despite this, the joy Mullen took in making this body of work radiates from each painting, pointing towards an enduring power that can outlast any acquisition.