Group 2, MFA VA
1 October, 2017
Suburban Decay: Martin Mull
The image of the perfect suburban family was marketed vigorously after WWII, pushing the narrative of what the typical American family should look like. This happy nuclear family was a shared national dream, unique unto America, and still has its hooks in our culture. The painter Martin Mull grew up in this era and uses the iconic media images of his youth in his paintings, weaponizing these hooks hinting at the origins of a psychological decline amid a picturesque back drop of the American dream. The “buy more stuff” and “keep up with Joneses” postwar commercialism aimed to produce a constant state of deficiency which revved up the consumer machine. The marketing ploys of today are no different, just riddled with more complexities brought on by technology. Mull’s use of photographic reference from this nostalgic time is a classic reminder of what lurks behind the facade. Why are we drawn to Mull’s work and these dark narratives of the human condition? How has Mull utilized the powerful notions in photography known as “studium and punctum” to produce a visceral response to his critique of mid-century America.
I’m not alone in my fascination with ruin, America has a fascination with the dark. It seems our consumption cannot be satiated. Screens fill our lives with their explosions, tragedies, serial killers, zombies, doomsday video games and the evening news, all to an almost numbing effect.
There is no easy explanation why these images are so appealing. Evidence is thin and motivations are complex. The tragedy paradox offers one such explanation suggesting the sadder the aesthetic experience, the greater the viewers enjoyment will be. Sad emotions can provoke a more powerful response than good emotions. The German word schadenfreude suggests another idea; it describes the pleasure that one gets after seeing someone’s misfortune. (Jaffe) Mull’s work offers a possible glimpse back at the origins of the more heavy handed and less thought-provoking misfortune imagery that has captured audiences in our mainstream culture today.
Martin Mull’s career is a fascinating contradiction, just like his paintings. Many artists rebel against the hypocrisy in our society, challenging social norms pushed by pop culture. Mull, ironically, is a card carrying member of this mainstream machine - Hollywood. In my research of his work, images of this goofy looking TV actor kept popping up among the dark and psychological paintings of mid-century suburbia. I was convinced the artist couldn’t be the same guy who appeared on the Golden Girls, Rosanne, and countless other similar films, TV shows, and commercials. Wikipedia finally proved me wrong and the rebellious artist side of me didn’t want to give this guy any attention. The roles he played in his acting career seem such a disconnect given the type of paintings he produced over the past few decades. He did get some artist “street cred” from me as he earned his MFA in painting from RISD and he mentioned in an interview that painting is his first love and true passion while doing the other“show business stuff on the side.”(Martin)
Raised in the 1950’s among perfect manicured lawns of western Ohio, his youth was informed by Hollywood's fantastical landscape of Oz“aimed to convince an entire country that there’s no place like a Caucasian middle class home.” (Figge) Mull uses pop art, photo-realism and iconography to give a social commentary ofhis childhood in white suburbia. He explains, “My work is all about tensions: between colors, textures and edges, between figures and symbols.” He uses snapshot type images set against one another in a collage type style in his paintings that border on photorealism. (Freeman) In a TV interview on Chicago Tonight, Mull explains, “The world has changed in so many ways, and this country has changed in so many ways, I feel compelled to lay down this madness that I was raised in – the idea of suburban America as this kind of picture-perfect thing. Of course, it wasn’t. It wasn’t all Ozzie and Harriet.” (Figge)
The effectiveness of Mull’s photographic use is one of unique duality which reflects aspects of Barthes’ definitions known as“studium” and “punctum.” Barthes’ notions in his book Camera Lucida define these two terms relating to photography. “Studium,” he explains, is a general understanding or education of an image, a civility that informs the viewer with the intent of the photographer promoting little more than interest. Barthes cites journalistic photos as an example stating, “I glance through them, I don’t recall them, no detail ever interrupts my reading; I am interested in them (as I am interested in the world) I do not love them,”. Barthes goes on to explain “punctum” as “that accident which pricks, bruises me”. It’s the detail in the image that disturbs; it’s the “element which rises from the scene” and changes the meaning of the photograph, filling the viewer with intrigue. (Barthes)
In Mull’s paintings, the pricking sting of “punctum" is achieved in a different more subtle way. Mull creates tension in his work with the co-presence oftwo images. These images occupy the same arena and time period, but are drastically disconnected in feeling. If either of these photographic references or “snapshots” was isolated and viewed away from its counterpart they could be defined as more “studium.” However the juxtaposition of the two photographic references together creates a jarring intrigue that can be described as “punctum.” Mull is then not confined by the limits of photography and uses his painterly skills of color, contrast, and texture to further magnify this unusual relationship. The result is a subtle but biting critique of this unique time in American history. His exploration of the hidden undercurrents of the “happy” image can easily be compared to modern America’s use of social media.
The post WWII “model” of the perfect family was pushed out across the American landscape through the media outlets of the time. Today the same promoting of the ideal image has been compounded by social media. The constant posts through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are not an accurate representation of the individual but rather a select self curation of the ideal image, message or thought. The bombardment of these posts are then perpetuated by the viewer who can’t help but compare his or her life to the “perfect” and “I've got it all figured out life” image on the screen. These self filtered images often mask the depression, hypocrisy andsense of lack so many feel behind the glow of the screen, the very thing Martin Mull shines the light on through his work.
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Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. The Noonday Press, 1988.
“Figge Art Museum.” Adventures in a Temperate Climate: A Retrospective of Paintings by Martin Mull, www.tfaoi.com/aa/7aa/7aa6.htm.
Freeman, Samuel. “MARTIN MULL | THE EDGE OF TOWN.” Samuel Freeman | Artsy, 10 Oct. 2015, www.artsy.net/show/samuel-freeman-martin-mull-the-edge-of-town.
Jaffe, Eric. “6 Scientific Reasons You Can't Stop Looking At Ruin Porn.” Co.Design, Co.Design, 2 May 2017, www.fastcodesign.com/3033210/6-scientific-reasons-you-cant-stop-looking-at-ruin-porn .
“Martin Mull Witnesses The.” RISDwww.risd.edu/news/stories/martin-mull-witnesses-the-madness/.
Group 2, MFA VA
1 September 2017
Art and the Covert Contract
Artists forge a unique path in our culture, they beat the drum and carry the banner as they veer off society's carefully scripted and predictable parade route. This is the critical artists mission; to push against this system with integrity. As we grow as artists and individuals we become more self-aware and gain insights to our environment. There are, however, aspects of our lives that can go morally unexamined for reasons of self-preservation and self-elevation. This willful ignorance I call the ‘covert contract’ and it is as apparent in my life as in my art practice. I created work that appealed to the very people whose values and lifestyles I often oppose. In this paper I will shed some light on this contract and how it relates to my work and then turn my focus to this same contradiction that is systemic in the art world today.
Artists are among the few on the front lines pushing back and questioning the “matrix” we live in. The politics, cultural structures and corporate influence inform our thinking, pushing us towards being passive predictable consumers. The French Philosopher Michel Foucault’s writings on social theories offer insight to the pervasive depth of power that influence our lives. In an article on his writings the author states, “He has been hugely influential in pointing to the ways that norms can be so embedded as to be beyond our perception – causing us to discipline ourselves without any willful coercion from others.”(Power/Knowledge). This perfectly explains the pervasiveness of which society has infiltrated our behaviors and defined them to be true. Foucault writes, “What we perceive as true is a result of the regular effects of politics and the social rituals which is then reinforced by? cultural institutions, the media and changing political and economic discourse. What we perceive as true or what is appropriate as we function in society one must question who defined this “truth”.” (Foucault 1991).
Art can spark intellectual discourse to these “truths” and disrupt passive communication. At its most potent form art prompts questions, disrupting long established social norms and patterns. This intellectual effort can lead to awareness in areas in our society where energy is stagnant as it concerns social awareness and injustices. Foucault explains, “discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart” (Foucault 1998). In my own art practice, especially earlier in my career, I had little regard for this essential role of the artist and the little regard I did have was almost unconsciously disregarded.
My upper middle class upbringing in a small Connecticut town informed my art practice when my career gained traction. I grew up around the phatic settings of cocktail parties and country clubs that did nothing to nurture new perspectives and free thought. My creativity and talent that I mined was quickly, yet subtly, diverted and repressed appealing to this social elite class. I was familiar with this group and could speak their language but often I silently rooted for their demise. My complacency in pandering to these individuals and corporate elitist types with all smiles was such a disconnect compared to how I lived my life as an artist. I revolted against the lifestyle I was exposed to growing up and saw it as shallow, materialistic and self-serving. On the surface, however, this non-materialistic, spiritual surfer type and advocate for the environment often pushed against these individuals and what they often represented, until I needed them. This veiled influence that I silently submitted to was superficially offset and made palatable by my outward identity.
There is no better example of this hypocrisy than my experience that has played out at dozens of times at the top art shows along the east coast. Very wealthy individuals exhaustively negotiate with me on the price of a painting, pleading and forcing my price down. I play along and say all the right things and make the sale. Often times it seems to be a sport, and they just default to muscle memory when making a deal. I always think if the roles were reversed I would not negotiate and want to support this valuable member of our society and honor his talent. I remember in one instance, after extensive negotiation, a man had me carry his painting to his 200K Mercedes where he then explained how he wasn't sure which house to hang it in. His lack of regard for an artist who has chosen an unpredictable path was shocking. Equally as shocking was my lack of regard for my art and self-worth. The reason for this was simple: self preservation.
My moralless agenda was to make money, sell my work to the people who could afford it to keep my career going. I was familiar with these wealthy individuals and knew how to appeal to them. I had conscious access to these feelings but didn't give this contradiction much attention. Self-preservation can have a profound influence on behavior. This was my covert contract that I ignored as I developed as an artist. This relationship is a microcosm for a larger contradiction that is present in art institutions.
Its no surprise that the top art collectors and donors to museums worldwide are financial executive types, the same individuals that were directly to blame for the sub-prime mortgage crisis. As the gap between the rich and the poor grows to historic levels of inequality, wealth consolidates. Those who can afford luxury goods and the those who deal art in this sphere often benefit. (Fraser)
One might regard the museum as the mothership of the art spirit, pushing through the discursive seascape with its flags flapping in the wind. The museums however are even more beholden to these wealthy patrons. Museums plead their fundraising case and negotiate acquisitions to the wealthy. Multi-million dollar expansions and renovations to these institutions proceed despite any economic downturn. All the while museum workers get paid low wages and exhibition budgets are tight. (Fraser) The archetypal struggling artist often seek these positions in the name of their ideals. Museums don't even pay the artists to show their work. I know the exposure is valuable but why not both, the money is there. I recently saw an ad in the New York Times for the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. At thebottom below the Bank of America symbol it states “Bank of America is the Global Sponsor of Robert Rauschenberg.” It didn’t specify an organization he presented or another other than just the artists name? What if there is another approach at an individual level that relinquishes to these veiled energies and redirects them?
Art has profound effects on society but it pales in comparison to the ultimate power: money. Why not leverage artistic skills and pander to the elites without moral contradiction. I know many artists who do this one dimensionally but they often lack the moral compass needed to then move this energy towards something other than self-interest. The abstract effects of critical art vs the funding for social projects and organizations of integrity almost seems like two different languages within the same culture. One is clear, universal, and understandable and the other an elite hybrid cryptic slang. Simply put, take their money and do something good with it. The artist can walk this line and produce other more personal and experimental bodies of work in tandem. This may however expose the artist’s integrity to weaken. Everything is in flux, nothing is fixed and as humans are subject to compromise, the system currents can be insidious and erode values. New organizations have emerged and embraced this sentiment, providing a platform for artists to make a difference in society.
Dose Projects out of Brooklyn, NY is one such organization. This is an alternative art model that pairs artists with charitable causes. The artist selects the cause that is important to them and then 50% of the sales goes directly to that charity and the other 50% to the artist. (Dose) This organization and others like it have encouraged me to donate in a similar way to organization. The art I’m selling is a different type of work that I enjoy but is created mainly to generate income separate from my personal narrative pieces which are more critical and contemporary.
There is nothing wrong with creating something beautiful and marketable, even if it’s for some wealthy guy’s house in Nantucket. The academic artists of the 19th century created beautiful works but for the purpose of highlighting good moral values and virtuous behavior . In contrast the modern work of Mondrian and Kandinsky was ambitious in their efforts of a spiritual awakening through their art, serving as a guide of inspiration away from the materialistic world to something greater. (Witcombe) This is a lot of pressure to put on a work of art and perhaps another approach is needed as well.
The role of art to social change in this increasingly divided and globalized world must be effective on many fronts. A large part of this new approach I think must start with confronting disowned parts of ourselves and re examining our role as artists in the context of todays world. This redirecting and circulating of energy will have positive effects on both the individual and that which he or she holds dear in our culture.
Dose Projects, doseprojects.com/about/.
Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: the birth of a prison. London, Penguin.
Foucault, Michel (1998) The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, London, Penguin.
Fraser, Andrea. “There's No Place like Home.” Http://Whypublish.wikispaces.com
Power/Knowledge Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 Michel Foucault panthoen books, New York, 1980
Witcombe, Christopher. “Art for Arts Sake.” Modernism: Art for Art's Sake, witcombe.sbc.edu/ modernism-b/artsake.html.
It was great arriving at this residency more familiar with the program and having some bandwidth cleared up to focus on other things throughout the day. It was also nice knowing what meals to skip and people to avoid (just kidding about the food). Overall, I was pleased with this summer semester. The students and faculty were great, and I made some new connections with artists. One of the real strengths of this program is its diversity. The artists range in age, race, gender, and background which brings them to produce different types of work and perspectives.
The critiques were informative, as always, with some dialectically opposing suggestions, but after taking them in totality, certain patterns emerged and insights resonated. I chose to focus on a completely different body of work for this residency: abstract color studies along with my more traditional impressionistic paintings with a heavier narrative. I became tired of hearing myself talk about my work. Listening to my recorded critiques I realized that my responses were shorter and more to the point as we neared the end of the semester.
I didn't want to abandon my style or medium but rather change the subject matter to a more thought-provoking narrative that is personal to me. Corporations that push heartless, unhealthy products with no regard for anything but the bottom line frustrate me. McDonald’s sponsors the Olympics and advertises its garbage food to kids. The hypocrisy and lack of empathy for the environment, animals and “Main Street” business is astonishing.
In my urban decay paintings, nature is reclaiming the landscape as the ruined iconic buildings are taken over as animals and vegetation move back in. Nature is connected more directly to a universal intelligence that is effortless and has balance. We are not disconnected from this universal intelligence that beats our hearts, but our ego and powerful minds can jump the rails. The urban decay series painted in my classic style worked well, but were somewhat safe and a bit of a one-liner. I need to push this further and expand my universe while not being so one dimensional in my approach. I could crop my reference material to compose more interesting perspectives, adding more abstract qualities. The cliches in the photoshop images that I quickly pieced together to paint from could be exploited and exaggerated to add interest and offer a path to explore.
The multi-paneled color studies I felt were a much needed departure from my usual repertoire, especially early on in the program. The abstract fish print was new for me and a further departure into new territory, helping me break out of my comfort zone. During this process I realized that I need some structure to inform or give some order to the unpredictability of this new work. The separate panels were interchangeable and fit together to form larger work. The abstract fish print was informed by images that were glued on the back of the rice paper and were ghosting through. This gave me a foundation to consistently refer to as the work progressed. I pushed myself to explore these new directions so that my more traditional work would be informed and knocked into a new trajectory.
Critical Theory 2 had some dense readings as expected . I could, in some cases, just follow all the concepts in the readings, but some were more difficult than others. The writings of this David Geers character was out there, he seems like a real wack-a-doodle.
The purposefully difficult writings could be written so much more simply. One of the strengths of our Critical Theory 2 professor is that he has a great way of simplifying these complex theories and connecting the dots for us while still walking the line of their complexities. My only suggestions for the class would be to separate or group similar theories with visual references right after the text discussion rather than at the end of class. This paired with a few key points written on the board would be helpful for comprehension and for distinguishing theories. I understand the challenge of this program is time and of course it would be better not to push through so much if we had the option.
The articles are written for peers and academic scholarly types and therefore need to be somewhat cryptic and more difficult to comprehend. It was challenging to fully grasp certain theories that were buried in the many fancy words, foreign names, places, and related periodicals. A fancy word or reference that I have no comprehension of easily confused me and bumped me off the path. I realized that I need more art history knowledge and to expand my vocabulary so I can follow the ideas more completely.
The article Accelerant Manifesto, was the one article I breezed through and fully comprehended because I’m familiar with the language of politics. The words, names and references in the text I understood. These terms are the connective tissue to understanding the main ideas.
One of the most positive parts of my semester was a relationship with a group 5 graduate. Over the last semester and the beginning of this one, I avoided engaging with this person because he was off-putting. I didn't understand much about him and didn't want to. It wasn't until I was signing up for critiques with group 5 and saw he only had 2 people signed up under his name that I decided to reach out. I knew he was well intentioned, different, and from a different area of the country. I signed up for a critique with him. The next day he said “ So I see you signed up for a critique. What, no one else worked with your schedule?” I explained to him that wasn't the case at all and that I wanted to get a different perspective on my work and was looking forward to our discussion. To make a long story short we had a great critique, talked more in our elective and got along great. I understood more about him, and our interactions from that point on were positive. At the end of our student exhibition for Deborah Davidson, the two tall guys had to stand in the back, and he put his arm around me. That’s what it’s all about, reaching out with an open mind to better understand others and ourselves.