Paul Mullins: The Manly Art
October 21 - December 3, 2000
A solo exhibition of paintings by Paul Mullins.
Michael Berger statement on Paul Mullins: Paul Mullins is a young artist who is just now recognized. This past January he was one of the three artists to be honored with an exhibition at the Corcoran gallery of Art in Washington D.C. In June, he had a solo show in Chicago and next spring will have another in Miami. Mullins draws incessantly and paints when he can find time. His heavily worked and impastoed paintings are on wood panel. 'Canvas,' he says, 'simply won't stand up to the paint.'
Dynamic figure painting is enjoying a resurgence in contemporary fine art. One thinks immediately of the British School, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, and Jenny Saville. But, to me, the low-life losers in Mullins' work, coupled with his sympathetic and sometimes humorous rendering of characteristic poses in the drawings, reminds me of the American Ashcan School from the early 1900s. Robert Henri's (1865-1929) acute observation of the anonymous working class comes to mind. One thinks of George Bellow's painting, "Stag at Sharkey's," 1909 (Cleveland Museum of Art) not only for the subject matter but also in the paint application and the palette, or George Luks' "The Wrestlers," 1905 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).
Boxers, bouncers, wrestlers and other would-be tough guys figure prominently in Mullins' work. They are the sparring partners at the gym, rather than the 'contenders' who climb through the ropes under the lights in front of the crowd. They are the 'has-beens' and the 'never-was's' hoping to catch 'the champ' with a good one and maybe the eye of the promoter.
'Most boxers comes from abject poverty. They have a thorough understanding of violence,' says Mullins. Prize fighting at the regional small time level is not pretty, and is even more dramatic than the big time in capturing mortal combat. The ring is a microcosm of unfettered brutality. That is why prize fighting has been a source of fascination for contemporary writers as diverse as Hemingway, Clifford Odets, Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer. 'It encompasses the whole drama,' Mullins says, 'one guy wins, the other guy gets beaten, humiliated, or worse. So much art today celebrates gimmicky processes that it fails to move us. Not so these. Whether you see Mullins' images as metaphors for the vicissitudes of life, or as poking fun at the concept of a God-like human race, or merely as fight pictures, they are compelling."
"Modern embodiments of animal combativeness inform and compose the iconography of this work: boxers, muscleman, wrestlers, bad-asses. I am particularly interested in the most contradictory of these figures: those who have a lot of front but little actual function. The two most recurrent images in this work are the dull-witted brute who relies on posturing, and the macho fighter unable to acknowledge his physical limitations, or is well past his heyday.
"The fact that the innate brutishness that resides in all people (particularly males) can be simultaneously frightening, pitiable, and hilarious is of boundless interest to me, and it has become a seemingly inexhaustible subject. I am drawn to the signs of the inherently mean animal, as it shows up in the confusion of present day.
"This work often draws from the patterns of behavior, increasingly capitalized on and exploited in advertising and marketing: the need to be tough, strong, a champion. The cult of the unassailable and untouchable individual in sports figures, action-movie mythology and the like continues to show astonishing influence on popular culture and is used to sell virtually everything.
"The results of this phenomenon are usually quite ludicrous. Hordes of regular folk believe they need muscles; the street and biker gang look is assimilated into fashion' 'kicking ass' becomes the most overreaching and overused figure or speech. In many ways, my work is a reflection of the absurdity of this faux 'bad-ass' climate, and a chronicle of my negotiation of it. I frequently employ images (and often text) that recall my Appalachian youth, the redneck ideal of masculinity as well as the sorrow of rural poverty and callowness.
"Hundreds of figures I have depicted in the course of my career have no heads. They are not so much severed (although I have no problem with such an interpretation) as merely omitted. This is quite deliberate, and primarily serves to prevent the figures from having a specific identity, to preserve their anonymity. They must remain average, like their unremarkable physiques. In my collages--made up of many small drawings--I combine animal imagery and other things that give the works an anthropological feel. I want to balance the elegant with the vulgar, and I often combine an old-master drawing look with the most crass of contemporary images.
"I hope that viewing and interacting with this work will not be an experience reserved only for the art-initiated. Although drawing on the language of contemporary art, both pictorially and conceptually, the work is easily recognizable to everyone."