Martin Mull keeps visual art his true priority
Despite more than a youthful dalliance as a pole-vaulter and a Hollywood career that provided a “cushion” that has enabled him to paint on his own terms, Martin Mull has tread a true artist’s track since the age of three.
Inspired by the Saturday Evening Post as well as the Life and Look magazines he leafed through as a child in his grandmother’s attic in Northern Ohio, Mull creates collages out of images from as many as ten different sources, then paints the whole thing from scratch with devilishly demure detail—a style which Mull identifies, through an appropriate smirk, as “Saturday Evening Post-modern.”
“Basically, I’m a figurative painter, a representational painter,” he divulges, “I would not say that I’m a photo-realist because I’m not—photorealism goes to a whole other (and more compulsive) place. My stuff might give the effect of photography without being photorealistic. It’s recollective.”
Recently showing at the University Art Gallery at San Diego State University, the Adventures in a Temperate Climate retrospective (which began at the Las Vegas Art Museum) recalled forty-two pieces of suburban culture-scapes that Mull has lulled into two-dimensional captivity over the past twenty-plus years.
The retrospective is a time for introspection for the Cleveland Browns fan. “It’s great seeing them again, it’s like a town meeting, y’know, surrounded by all these things that I grew up with that I’d never seen in the same room…I’d forgotten about certain parts of some paintings, some happy accidents,” says Mull. “There was a great quote—from Matisse I believe—that people make art in spite of themselves. It couldn’t be more true.”
Although a couple of humorous pieces evidence Mull’s dabbling with acrylics and canvas in the 80s, the exhibition is constituted almost entirely by oils on linen. Mull admits, “I just like the paint and acr ylic just doesn’t do what oils do, it doesn’t feel the same on the brush to me; I like the smell, I like the history.”
Just as the retrospective enables Mull to reminisce amongst old “friends,” the pieces in turn quintessentially distill the essence of 1940s/1950s middle America. “It isn’t a societal commentary like ‘Boy, look what we’ve lost,’ or, ‘Boy, look where we’re headed,’” Mull laughs. “It’s not that generous. It’s more about my own childhood and trying to understand what it all meant. And if the viewer says ‘My god, we’ve lost it,’ ‘Those were the good old days,’ or even ‘Boy, we’ve come a long way’ or any of that, then so be it. I’ve made an object, and hopefully it’s an object that’s evocative.”
Despite the inherent societal commentary of any art that reflects a time which is not the present, Mull indicates that, at the “inconceivable” age of 63, his work is self-exploratory,“just in terms of growing up, everything goes so fast and you don’t have much time to examine it, it’s just like ‘Whoa…what was that?’ and so, in a way, it’s trying to go back, and trying to examine some of the visual emotions that substantiated and described…my life.”
That sense of self as his craft’s compass points seems to translate into a sense of his work’s utilitarian importance. “I believe in what Samuel Goldwyn said: that messages should be sent by Western Union. People come up and say ‘What does it mean?’ but I ask myself the same question. I just work on things until the combination—of the structure of the piece, the tension between the images, the color—the whole thing will coalesce into something that takes me back, or seems familiar, or seems like it hangs together. And then I stop.”
With his work now held (among many other places) in the public collections of LACMA,The Metropolitan Museum of Art,The Whitney, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Harvard Museum of Fine Art, as well as the private collections of Richard B. Sachs, Steve Martin, New York’s David Beitzel, and Bergamot Station’s own Patricia Faure, it’s fair to say that Mull’s work achieves more than that seemingly modest purpose of self-fulfillment.
Maintaining a disciplined, 80-hour work schedule (with breaks for baseball coverage when the afternoon light streaks across his studio), Mull works in the solitary vacuum of his sizeable studio above the garage of the Brentwood home he shares with wife, Wendy, their daughter, Maggie (when she’s not at college), canines Spot and Max, and a feline named Scamper. In reference to the albums he recorded in the 70s and his thirty years in film and television, Mull affirms that he needs no outlet for his creative talents other than his painting.
Mull attributes much of that inspiration being engendered by his college education, and proclaims, “The day I set foot at the Rhode Island School of Design completely altered my life. People talk about being born again; I literally was born again the minute I put my bag down in the dormitory. Coming from where I did, the entire world of visual art was new to me and so everything I would look at I would just glom onto and copy and cheat from and steal. During my college years, the most formative influence of all was probably Matisse, only because I just studied and studied him in terms of structure and color. He’s just, to me, the Western master.”
With the explanation that it makes sense to him “absolutely,” the following quote by pop artist Gerhard Richter resides above Mull’s desk: “Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible, giving it form and bringing it within reach, and that is why good paintings are incomprehensible.”
Image: Image courtesy the artist.