Marlon Mullen’s second solo exhibition at JTT Gallery is an expansive collection of recent works by this San Francisco-based hero in the progressive art studio movement. Mullen’s abstractions are more delicate in terms of color and design than previous paintings, creating the effect of being more reduced or refined, although they aren’t any less complex – colorful, lush, and satisfying. Heavy, intentional brushstrokes recorded in matte plastic surfaces index Mullen’s distinctive bold, but measured touch. Mullen’s mark-making isn’t concerned with appearing effortless, but leaves a record of the careful labor of seeking and defining a specific image.
The content of Mullen’s work has remained relatively consistent over the course of his career thus far, but as the context in which he is seen has changed, the significance of his subject matter inevitably has as well. Mullen is an autistic artist who is a supported by NIAD, one of the original progressive art studios founded by Elias and Florence Katz in the Bay Area. Over the past several years, NIAD and Mullen have been the quintessential example of such a studio’s role in the ongoing narrative of so-called outsiders merging into the mainstream.
Mullen’s use of art magazines as source material is in part a consequence of progressive art studios’ inherent subversion of traditional ideals of outsiderism; they have long been affiliated with Outsider Art due to disability, but in fact their core intentions are in direct opposition to the historically romanticized notion of outsider artists. NIAD, an exceptionally forward-thinking program, is an environment where artists with disabilities are not only given resources to be artists, but to be a part of the broader contemporary art community, both locally and internationally. The facilitation staff is composed of professionally trained, practicing artists and contemporary art periodicals like those that Mullen references are made readily available. A section of the studio’s gallery space is dedicated to exhibiting local contemporary artists, the intended audience for which is primarily, Timothy Buckwalter explained during a visit, the artists working at NIAD.
In the context of Outsider Art, Mullen’s translations of art periodicals are a subversive element and even an occasional subject of criticism. The way that the content of his work subverts outsiderism may never have had anything to do with his personal intentions, and likewise, the viewer can only speculate about the meaning of his work. Mullen doesn’t speak about content or intention abstract of the works themselves, as the exhibition’s press release explains:
[Mullen] is for the most part non-verbal. It isn’t entirely clear how much he can read in the same sense that you are reading this press release right now, but he certainly has his own understanding of meaning when it comes to words. Specifically regarding the content of his paintings, he has not verbally communicated at length his intent or fascination with the images that he copies. However, his paintings are sufficient in informing us of the nuances of what he sees.(text JTT Gallery)