Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Robert Mullenix, "long watch"

My sleep cycle is completely disrupted right now, and it's the middle of the night. So I thought I'd type about Robert Mullenix, a painter and my closest friend. I will try to express what his work means to me and a little bit about what makes him tick. And what makes me tick, as well.

It's hard to imagine, but Robert and I have been friends now for about 20 years, nearly all of my adult life. Through this time, I've watched him work and grow as an artist and as a person.

Over these years, Robert's painting has held me in serious fascination, and with good reason: The paintings are always more than they appear.

I had the privilege recently to be part of Robert's show in Chicago, at The Artists Project, held inside the Merchandise Mart. And by, "part of Robert's show," I mean I stood around near his paintings and acted as a docent, of sorts, when he was busy elsewhere. And in that time, I was able to pay attention to my own response to his work, in a setting among a lot of other fine artists of various hues. It was illuminating.

And illuminating is the right word. Even though very modern in sensibility, Robert's work has a rather old-world feeling, almost as if a craftsman from another era were transplanted into our own. His paintings have a very luminous, multilayered sensibility, whose subtlety draws one in, which I would expect to find in an illuminated manuscript, or a thoughtful Japanese watercolor, or a stained-glass window.

On the surface, the paintings' content is that landscape painting of rather stark, dense forest scenes. There is a forbidding and ominous presence to the composition in some of his work, which he highlights with titles drawn from literature and Scripture, such as, long watch, and hour come 'round, and through it all darkly. These are not paint-by-numbers landscapes, but rather works that are speaking to the primordial mind and spirit, the lost-and-found part that, even in our suburbs and cities, dimly remembers the terror of the forest.

That being said, there is a placid tranquility in other works, which employ that English horn call to to the soul one finds in fine pastoral works. His technique gives the sense of depth and space, of near and far, of sharp foregrounds and deep, hidden distances.

But these works in another sense are not really about metaphor and "content" at all, but also about Robert's playfulness with his craft: He loves paint. He loves getting his hands dirty, and attempting to solve visual puzzles he incessantly sets for himself, and getting lost in the materials at hand.

For instance: If you look through his Web portfolio, you'll find 10,000 images of trees. Or so you think. But if you look closely, you'll see this painting is about reversing the visual expectation of the relationship of foreground and background; or negative and positive space; or trying to figure out how the color gray changes when it's next to blue, or peach, or pink.

In other works, he will work by projecting a collage of found landscape photos that he's blown up on a photocopier over and over again, revealing the pixelation of the original images as well as interactions between different sets of grids (there's a word for this phenomenon, which escapes me at the moment)-- onto a canvas. Or maybe he'll take the collage and use a gel medium to transfer that blown-up photocopy to the canvas, which he'll then paint over and painstakingly recreate his chosen visuals, pixel by pixel, in paint and color. In this way, he is exploring the relationship of paint and photography, and he's wrestling with the question, "What the hell am I doing, making paintings in a world of photography?"

But at the heart of all of this is that I love the spirit behind the work, and the spirit of the man himself. The paintings show the world something of the incredible and somewhat mad complexity of the human soul, the density of layers that I find in my own self, but I am not usually cognizant of. When I have the opportunity to be around serious artists-- and Robert is certainly one-- it enlarges me, and I remember that I am more than I appear, and these inchoate longings I feel have deep root in my nature and, I suppose, in the nature of others, as well.

Robert Mullenix's work draws all of this out of me, and I am deeply grateful to him for the innumerable hours he's spent working on his craft, so that I can experience this elevation of spirit, even if it's only every once in a while.


Laura said...

Lovely reflection on Robert's work, Steve. You use such beautiful language to describe an almost indescribable experience: his work's impact on your soul.