|L. Mullican, Source Series, alkyd on canvas|
Lee Mullican’s technique of painting with the edge of a painting knife is exact, painstaking and original. The measured stripes of paint can fall like rain or swirl like straw in the wind, vibrating softly or intensely. His images, abstracted from natural or ‘guardian’ forms, are concentrated and personal, so much so that they often click into the universal realm of archetype. At 62, Mullican, who has taught painting and drawing UCLA for 20 years, is at the height of his expressive powers. Last year, the Los Angeles Municipal Galleries staged a highly acclaimed 30-year retrospective of his paintings. Opening August 1, the New Gallery, Taos exhibits “The Source,” a new series of paintings. Mullican, who maintains a home in Arroyo Seco, discussed his work last month with ARTlines editor Stephen Parks.
“’The Source’ was titled by my wife, but that’s what it’s about. It’s very close to nature. The basic shape is one that has always appealed to me. It has many connotations – a head or a tear drop, though in this series I’ve used it as a flower petal. It’s as if I’ve taken a flower apart and reassembled it in a different form . . . it’s a transformation from one context to another. And not only the flower, but also the stem, the leaf. That’s where the painting begins. It’s the creation of a private world that my works have been involved with for 30 years.
“These paintings are mostly in black and white, with accents of primary colors. They’re different than most of my work, in that they’re built around large shapes. I’m trying to get away from the personages I dealt with the’ Guardian Series,’ though occasionally they still creep in. The flower itself is sort of a personage.
“Somehow I feel this series was forced on me by the change of decades, the arrival of the
‘80s. I’d been painting for nearly 40 years, and I wanted to break into something new. The ‘Guardian Series’ is built on dark backgrounds, but I felt it would be daring to work in white on black, and bring in color with only accents that work to pervade a whole area.
“I started painting this way in about 1948, right after moving to San Francisco, though the technique has gone through many transformations. I use a painting knife, and every mark the knife makes is an incident. Four or five marks together make a shape which itself is a new incident. And it builds up that way. There is a rhythm in the process that excites the eye, and promotes, I think, a meditative quality. The paintings create a curious image that’s there and is not there. I create by either the presence or the absence of a stroke. I’ve combined this technique with the brush, too, with layers of transparent imagery that serve as curtains, or veils.
“In a way, I treat nature in an abstract manner, as any tribal society might. If you’re close to nature, you translate, transcribe it in a personal way. And if you can do that completely, you get to archetype. I try to avoid inserting exact reproductions of Indian shapes or images, though some of them are similar.
“Another important ingredient of my work, that came out of late surrealism, is working in an automatic way. Other than a few planned things – canvas shape and size, for instance, . . . You think of abstract expressionism, I do the same thing. It seems more rigid in the use of the knife stroke, but each canvas is a surprise to me. Controlled, yes, but unplanned. It’s very exciting to work that way, to see what the result is. It’s comparable to John Cage writing music with the I Ching. The combination of imagination and surprise is very important to me. It yields an element of mystery, which is perhaps the most important ingredient.”
--Stephen Parks, August, 1981
(Lee Mullican died in July, 1998)