Judging by the cover

Bright paintings inspired by library books at Adams and Ollman

by LINDSAY COSTELLO

The vibrancy of Marlon Mullen’s paintings beckons to every pedestrian who passes the broad windows of Adams and Ollman. The thirteen paintings included in Mullen’s solo exhibition are inspired by advertisements, as well as magazine and book covers running the gamut from Artforum and Art in America to knitting and cooking publications. Mullen finds these visual references in the library at Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development (NIAD), a Richmond, California art studio supporting artists with disabilities. Mullen, who is autistic and primarily nonverbal, has maintained his art practice at NIAD since 1985. His paintings translate the written language and imagery of his references into abstracted forms, creating an inspiring new layer of aesthetic function.

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (2015). Acrylic on canvas. 36 h x 36 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Upon entering the gallery, the viewer finds nine acrylic paintings on comparably-sized canvases lining three walls. Further back, a smaller room contains three additional paintings, and one more hangs behind the gallerist’s desk. Mullen’s references to graphic design, advertisements, language, fine art, and popular culture are swiftly apparent. Organic shapes in a palette of bright blues, pinks, yellows, and oranges make each work feel alive and confident. Key phrases emerge from the canvases: “The World of Rubens;” “Art in America;” “First Steps in Knitting;” “New American Paintings.” Yet no elaboration is provided—Mullen’s paintings are untitled. The words seem to exist primarily as compositional elements of the overall works; legibility and textual meaning is secondary.

The exhibition’s thirteen paintings fall into three distinct categories: renderings of existing media including both text and image, text-only works, and fully abstracted works with no text or representational imagery. Working within these categories, Mullen descends further and further into an aesthetic of pure abstraction. However, each painting still reflects rapt attention to texture, shape, scale, and bold color choices. 

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (2019). Acrylic on canvas. 28h x 22w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s paintings referencing magazine or book titles such as Artforum, New American Painting, Art in America, Cook’s Edition, or First Steps in Knitting all fit into the first category. The painted titles of each publication are included in the works, providing the viewer with base context, but Mullen then captures only his source imagery’s general shape, leaving a dizzying array of bright blobs. One of Mullen’s largest paintings, referencing a juried exhibition poster, features a stylized pink face dominating the canvas. The figure is a series of connected shapes, with hair and eyelashes expressed as single lines, nose and nose-shadow taking on equal importance and size. Another painting, inspired by the book cover of First Steps in Knitting, features an abstracted basket, yarn, and needles floating in the center of the canvas against a bright blue background. Mullen’s heavy paint application and visible brush strokes enhance the painting’s tactility; the canvas itself becomes part of the image. 

Three more paintings contain only text, which Mullen has rendered in blocky capital letters and spaced irregularly, eliminating letters, joining words, and creating new words. When the text is indecipherable, it best illustrates each letter as an individualistic form, drifting on the canvas, free from the need for context. In one painting, the sole phrase, The World of Rubens,is painted in black against a solid white background. Buoyant in the center of the canvas, the shapes that make up each letter of the phrase take on a quirky personality, as though they are congregating friends. This promised “World of Rubens” is absent, yet the work still feels complete. Mullen’s clean approach convinces the viewer that the words themselves have artistic merit. 

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (2017). Acrylic on linen. 36 h x 26 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s fully-abstracted works are also his fewest; only two are featured in this exhibition. In one such painting, thick, curved black lines stand out against a terracotta orange background, surrounding several orbs and other organic shapes. The viewer can’t be certain that Mullen used print references for these paintings, but the shapes feel like ghosts of Mullen’s source imagery from his other works, or depictions of shadows without form. If references were used, they’ve morphed completely into his visual language of intuitive forms and kaleidoscopic color. As with the other works in the show, Mullen allows the viewer to fill in the gaps.

While his references help to define the general composition of the paintings, Mullen’s style is most integral to his works. Thick layers of paint create a textural, swirled, and dappled effect. His formalist style pares down the source images to their contours, creating psychedelic color planes that fit together like puzzle pieces. Mullen’s compositions vacillate between representation and abstraction, placing a particular emphasis on small details and shadows while scale is skewed and reimagined. Yet Mullen’s stylistic renderings do not detract from his source imagery. Rather, it’s elevated, encouraging the viewer to consider new translations and interpretations of the existing media. When Mullen works with book and magazine covers as reference images, he cuts off access to the interior of these publications, thus thwarting the viewer’s ability to learn more. What’s left is a sense that all of the information needed is already provided in the works themselves. Mullen’s visual interpretations become a symbolic language.

Marlon Mullen. Untitled (2013). Acrylic on canvas. 41 h x 48 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s solo exhibition at Adams and Ollman comes after a milestone year in his career: his work was included in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. (This was the first year the Biennial included an artist with disabilities working within a progressive art studio.) Mullen has been exhibiting work nationally and internationally since 2011, starting at smaller galleries and working up to solo exhibitions at Atlanta Contemporary in 2015 and White Columns in New York City in 2012. He won the prestigious SFMOMA SECA Award in 2019 and the Wynn Newhouse Award in 2015. 

abstract painting by Marlon Mullen based on the cover of Art in America
Marlon Mullen. Untitled (2016). Acrylic on canvas. 36 h x 36 w. Image courtesy of Adams and Ollman.

Mullen’s paintings separate texts from both their original meanings and the necessity for meaning. His painted words begin as poetic gestures, highlighting form over function, yet it’s difficult to ignore Mullen’s frequent references to “high art” publications like Artforum and Art in America. This raises further questions. Why does Mullen consistently work with these specific references? How does art media act as a catalyst toward continued art-making? It seems as though the answer lies in practicing mindful looking, continuously, as Mullen has atNIAD for over 30 years. Mullen’s skilled noticing serves as a reminder of the importance of diverse perspectives. One observer may disregard an old magazine cover, but Mullen instead breaks down its form to rebuild it again, practicing perceptive, self-assured mark-making. Excavating references from both high art and the everyday, Mullen transforms his source material, thrusting pure shape and color into the light.


Marlon Mullen’s work is on view at Adams and Ollman through March 21st. The gallery is currently open by appointment only.


Lindsay Costello is a multimedia artist and art writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her critical writing can be found at Hyperallergic, Art Practical, Art Papers, 60 Inch Center, and Art Discourse, among other places. She is the founder of soft surface, a digital poetry journal and residency, and the co-founder of Critical Viewing, a recurring web and riso-printed publication aggregating contemporary art events in the Pacific Northwest. By day she works at the Portland Children’s Museum.

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