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A few years ago, Carter Mull ditched the art world to hang with a totally different group of weirdos from L.A.’s underground party scene. He made friends with some of the people that were dancing, drugging, and documenting themselves in what can fairly be called “alternative spaces,” just across the way from his downtown studio. Mull had them over to pose for pictures and otherwise become involved in the artwork he started making as a way to articulate his experiences among the ecstatic revelers of the 21st century. Their names and internet handles figure in the titles of the work collected in Theoretical Children, Mull’s recent exhibition of 2D work, sculpture and video presented by Jessica Silverman at fused space in San Francisco.
Mull’s 2D work employs uncomplicated digital effects; inkjet prints of shapes, gradients, and letterforms are collaged onto marbleized cotton stretched over aluminum. Marbleizing, a technique that produces lush whorls of mingled color, is sometimes used in hardback bookbinding and brings with it a whiff of distinction. By combining contemporary digital design techniques with traditional analog ones, Mull participates in the ageless impulse to parse moments of lived experience into good-looking documents.
Untitled Social Subject (Emotional Assassin, Svelte Accomplice, Fractured Defendant) (2015), a 2D work with a cotton candy palette features reproduced images of Fragonard’s The Lover Crowned (1772) and a leather jacket. Together, they form a continuum of self-centered coolness—an attitude that is comfortingly familiar amid Mull’s high-key translations of the brave new world he found in alternative nightspots and online.
Like the right number of the right people at a party, or in a chat room, the collaged elements in Untitled Social Subject (Suitor) (2015) form an enlivened gestalt. The concise formal and technical dichotomies—chance/ intention, wet/ dry media, geometry/ intuition—push and pull like living specimens under glass. Mull’s best compositions function in the small space between looking incidental and right-on-the-first-try fresh.
Elsewhere in the exhibition Mull took on ideas of identity in a more direct and conventional way, and the results were less revelatory. The layering of technique and materials in the smaller portraits, Theoretical Children (Luna Miu) (2015) and Theoretical Children (Alanna Pearl) (2015) is foggy and dense. They lack the sense of migration that makes Mull’s larger, more abstract works so descriptive of the mercurial nature of social groups and the media by which they define themselves.
Covering the floor of the gallery was Connection (2011), comprised of 1,800 stills from an iPhone 4 ad printed on silver metallic pieces of Mylar that shift like slow moving static as people walk around on them. The piece calls to mind the short-term gratification and disposability of the devices of the Information Age. The viewer is left alone to reckon on the inextricability of digital culture from the technological medium of its expression. If the latter so quickly becomes obsolescent junk, what does that mean for the former?
Mull also chose the floor for an even more ominous and intimately scaled expression of existential apprehension. Two sculptural memento mori, flower arrangements wilting under tulle veils, presented accessories common to rituals of transformation, including, but not limited to, weddings and funerals. Surely flowers and veils are comfortable bedfellows, but Mull combines them to particularly bleak effect. Chase / (The Tribune Company) / Los Angeles Times (2014) features a veil printed with the Los Angeles Times masthead. Covered by a haze of information, beauty and vitality shrivel up and die.
An assertion gestated in Warhol’s Factory, and re-affirmed by Mull, is that art—beset by toxic amounts of information—might avoid shriveling up and dying by demonstrating an awareness of the primacy of media. To this end, Mull’s digital video, Triple A Bond (2013-2015), features two party girls mirthlessly leafing through his works on paper, taking photos, and putzing around in his studio. Phrases like “In a new community, a negation of the old” are repeated by a female voice that, in turn, sometimes also refers to the process of repeating and articulating the phrases. Less substantial than the other works, it is nevertheless effective for framing the viewer’s understanding of Mull’s process and his point of view.
Up close, Mull’s work reveals itself to be deceptively low-tech and handmade. His impeccable craftsmanship affirms the traditional studio-based processes of distilling tangible form from the ether of experience. Mull is a wry and incisive artist and doesn’t align his work with Romanticism, which might have been tempting and a bit on the nose. Instead he gives us Fragonard and the Rococo, a style of art associated with the apolitical hedonism of the time right before the guillotine of the French Revolution.
Incidentally, fused space occupies the same building as the internationally-acclaimed design studio fuseproject. I’m told that before the building hummed with the business of conceiving the future, it was a place where coffins were made. Talk about on the nose.
Carter Mull was on view from November 12, 2015–January 17, 2016 at fused space (1401 16th St., San Francisco, CA 94105).
Originally published in Carla Issue 4.