Martin Mull, A Sincere Man

Study for Crossing (detail of a watercolor), Martin Mull

Ed played Martin Mull records in his University of Dayton dorm room. We drank wine on Friday nights and listened to songs like “Headin” for the Cumberland Gap”, a Disney style frontier ditty that sounded a lot like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”. Mull’s version had a different tone: the lyrics discussed selling daughters to pay for a trip out west, the side benefits of herding sheep (“the next best thing to a wedding ring when it’s time to go to sleep”), and drowning grandpa when crossing a river (caught himself in the wagon wheels). Another song mused about the difficulties of sneaking out of a bedroom the morning after a drunken tryst. Another was a jingle for a fictional fast food chain called Bun n’ Run (“It’s not food, it’s just fun!”). And another recounted unusual methods of getting intimate: “whips, chains, Great Danes…”

I assumed that Martin’s heart had been dipped in acid as his appearances in movies and on TV in the seventies confirmed the impression received from his albums. He played everything with a smarmy insincerity so blatant that it became comical. He undercut his lines with a wink and sardonic smile that told me that everything is a sad joke, that nothing is true, good and pure.

I heard that he was an artist whose work had been collected by Steve Martin. I recently googled Mull’s artwork and found odd photo-realist paintings about suburban, “Leave It to Beaver” absurdities. These fit my original take on his personality. Later work, however, looked like it had been done by another man. Tentative marks, child-like figures, and haunted spaces dominated this body of work.

Dog Dream (detail, oil), Martin Mull.

I recently bought a book entitled “Paintings, Drawings, and Words” by Martin Mull. He relates that his main creative endeavor is painting, and that he decided to devote himself to art after a brush with death in the early 80s. Music and acting are his day jobs, but visual art is his true vocation.

He states that his current work comes about from an intuitive process that involves complex layering of imagery, erasures, preliminary studies, and searches for a genuine expression that moves him in unexpected ways. He believes in honesty, hard work and persistence.

His favorite artist is Matisse, and he had a religious experience while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He turned a corner and encountered Pierre’s masterpiece, “The Piano Lesson”. Time stood still as the canvas drew him into it’s influence, and it’s enchantments changed his life. Mull’s unqualified adoration of the French Modernist’s work is sincere, and he sites Matisse’s work as a foundation for his own explorations.

The Piano Lesson, Matisse

This story reminds me, oddly enough, of sentimental movies from the thirties. A bitter grouch unwillingly takes in a mop-top orphan, and his heart gradually softens and melts. Mull used to be a cynical curmudgeon, but “The Piano Lesson” thawed his bitter heart and made him a new man.

(Untitled) Christmas, Martin Mull
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Students In(action)

Students In(action), graphite, 5×6″

1978

Speech class, first speech, and the guy down front yawns when I hit the half way point. I already hate my text as Marianne (secret crush who sits in front of me) has turned to the guy next to her to whisper and smirk. I falter, dying at the podium: soaked armpits, shaky knees. Merciless schmuck offers a critique after I slink to my seat: “He started off kind of slow, but then it was like he gave up and mumbled his way to the end.” Classmates nod in agreement. Professor ends the agony by calling out, “Next volunteer!”

1979

Ramsey leads us up a flight of stairs to a second floor conference room. We’re puffing, but the old prof eases into his chair and drawls in his flat monotone, “I’ve got a resting heart rate of fifty beats per minute and my blood pressure is 80 over 60.” After class, I imitate Ramsey for the benefit of a fellow sufferer. I imagine the professor in bed with his wife: “Ohh baby, I’m reaady fer youuu. My blood pressure is up to 90 over 65, and my resting heart rate is pummmping along at 62. Come to Papaaa.”

2006

Smart Ass (but not as clever as he thinks) comes to my table and sees me working on a drawing. Says, “Is that your real work–I mean, not a class demo?” I nod, and he burbles, “That’s really good. You’re talented. Maybe I’ll buy it at the end of the semester.” Bullshit. I nod and wait for him to go away. Next week he complains about the amount of homework assigned. Says, “I bet you think that your class is the most important thing in the world.” Stare him down to make him retreat while biting my tongue. Want to say, “Nope, getting laid on a regular basis is a lot more important.”

2019

Brush a stroke of gray onto a monochrome demo for a Drawing I class. Five out of ten students have showed up on time, and I can feel them willing me to stop. They want to be Anywhere Else, but cranky old professor makes them show up and draw. I refuse to stop, describe the next step and continue the demo. Turn to see Marianne staring at me hollow-eyed–a soulless child of the damned. Lorenzo’s Instagram page shines up at him from his phone. Heather studies the charcoal dust gathered in a heavy film on the ventilation ducts near the ceiling. I can’t find the right words and stutter over the wrong. Flop sweat.

Joey walks in as I go through my wrap up reminders (do this first and second, but never do this unless you want to destroy your drawing) but doesn’t come over to listen. Drops his bag at an easel instead. Comes over after everyone has begun to work and asks, “Hey, so what are we doin’ tonight?” “Painting with acrylic.” He waits for me to go on. Asks me, “So, we’re painting?” “Yup, we’re painting.”

Pull out a small sketchbook during break time and draw abstracted shapes: students slumping, staring, turning away. Bored and dull. The drawing makes me laugh. Karma might be a bitch, but revenge is mine.


Back Story

A friend of mine, a color field abstractionist who never made it to the big show, painted large canvases of pastels and off-whites.  He sold them to interior decorators who placed them in bank lobbies and board rooms.  He made a living, but his one show in New York flopped.

One day he invited me over to look at some new work.  I stifled a yawn as he rambled on about his “latest breakthrough”, but he rewarded my patience by pouring two tumblers of whiskey.  We lit up cigars and retired to his back porch, and he told me a nugget of art world wisdom:  “People don’t buy paintings.  They buy souvenirs of an artist’s back story.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but he explained.  (He always explained.)  “Van Gogh couldn’t draw and his early compositions and colors are crap.  But then he lops off an ear and tries to give it to a whore to prove how much he loves her.  Ends up in an asylum, shoots himself a few years later.  Folks start buying his paintings.  Wouldn’t touch them while he lived and breathed, but once the back story got out, he became a tragic genius.  Everybody wanted a piece of that.”

I asked him to name a few more examples.  “Dali shows up at a party wearing a diving suit, the ones with the weights and the bell shaped helmets.  He’s walking around with an oxygen tank on his back and nearly dies when a valve fails.  He’s sucking up all the air left inside the helmet and can’t get the damned thing off.  Great publicity.  Stole his wife away from a French poet and got kicked out of the Surrealists for making paintings about Hitler–or rather, his erotic dreams about Hitler.  He turned his life into a circus and sold off the posters.”

He went on.  (He always does.)  “Georg Grosz said that he and his buddies were like barkers at a carnival.  Come see the freak show.  And the rich ones lined up and paid admission.”

“But he paid a price, didn’t he?  Didn’t the Nazis chase him out of Germany?”

“So what?  When you put yourself on the market you have to expect some feedback from the public,” he drawled.

“You’re a real jerk,” I declared.

He sipped his whiskey, winced, and ran fingers through his thinning hair.  “And you’re naïve,” he countered.  He probed:  “So what’s your story?  Middle class background, white boy from the Cincinnati suburbs.  Married happily and had a couple kids.  Boring.  Wait a minute.  Didn’t you grow up Catholic?”

“Yeah,” I said warily.

“Any problems in the priest department?” he asked.

“Nope.  Didn’t happen to me and I never met any victims,” I said.

“Too bad.  Better start making something up.”

“What’s your deal?  I barely know anything about you,” I said.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I was born in Venice near St. Marks.  My mother was a part time model and a part time hooker, and my father was Titian’s fourth cousin ten times removed.  I stowed away on a tramp steamer when I was 12 and hid with the rats in the hold.  I nearly starved in New York until I fell in with the mob.  I ran numbers for them and shook down mom-and-pops when I got old enough to look dangerous. Squiggy the Mooch sent me to art school after he saw a sketch I made of a dead body.  Said I drew the puddle of blood real good.  Met Franz Kline, fought Jackson Pollock in a bar, and screwed Elaine De Kooning (everybody screwed Elaine De Kooning).   She introduced me to Peggy Guggenheim, and the rest is history.”

“Didn’t you tell me that you’re from Milwaukee?  Your dad worked in a brewery, and your mom was a seamstress.”

“Back story, boy, back story.”

He took a long drag on his cigar and let out a long stream of smoke.

Art, the Offender?

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Does art find harmonies that soothe?  Do the harmonies suggest an underlying and reassuring order?  All is well?

Does art destroy smug tranquility?  Does the destruction open up new ways of seeing, hearing, living?  Or does it merely wipe away preconceptions without building a scaffold for new structures?

I read that James Joyce came across a few intelligible passages as he edited Finnegan’s Wake.  A reader might just be able to connect some dots.  Joyce immediately reworked the offending phrases until they seamlessly blended in with the seething babble of the rest of the book.

Picasso broke forms, twisted shapes, rendered the world in ways that surprised him.  Yet he missed having a set of rules by which he could judge the value of his work.  He realized that Cubism had undermined tradition, and that he couldn’t retrace his steps to regain the comfort of working in an enclosed system.

I used to use color as a weapon.  Reds and greens clashed and tore at each other.  Hot colors shouted at dull.  I wanted to wake everyone up to make them feel what I felt.  Now I know that they already did, that my emotions weren’t unique.  And now I like a little harmony as my days grow harder to manage and the world seems alien to me.

I sometimes visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York when I lived in Pennsylvania.  The lower floors started with James Ensor, and as I progressed upward I saw a progression of movements.  Fauvism jumped to Cubism skipped to Dadaism and Surrealism.  The tangled energy of Ab-Ex ran down and became supplanted by Pop Art and increasingly arid Minimalism.  The eighties section focused mostly on installation art.  Eccentricity seemed to be the only recognizable goal.  I fled around a corner into a quiet room with dimmer lights, sat on a bench and sighed.  A Monet water lily painting hung before me, and I felt like a thirsty traveler sipping cool water at an oasis.

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Abstraction: Poetic Interpretations of Memory

 

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Here’s a slide show of recent paintings and a drawing. These were made this year and represent a huge departure from my narrative painting series. Abstraction allows me to make poetic interpretations of emotions and experiences, and the process is more absorbing and satisfying than working realistically.

Technique: I’ve been layering images associated with specific events. Memories of a weekend vacation, a quilt on a bed, bass fishing with my father, recovering from surgery, dealing with a friendship gone bad, and an adolescent dream are the sources. I let the colors and shapes develop into rhythmic patterns and create contrasts between flat shapes and volumetric forms.

I intentionally leave hints of the original subject matter. I’ve never been a purist, never wanted to edit compositions into pristine arrangements of a few precious forms. I’d prefer, if I had the cash, to own abstract work by Paul Klee, Stuart Davis, Georges Braque, Arshille Gorky, Patrick Henry Bruce, August Macke, and Marsden Hartley. (They  included autobiographical images, symbols and references to nature in their compositions.)  I’d pass up the pure abstraction, minimalist, and conceptual artwork of Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, and Ellsworth Kelly.  (They boiled things down to sterile nothingness.)

 

 

 

Ohio Man and Vincent Van Gogh

The art department at the University of Delaware had a poster pinned on the office door: a reproduction of a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait.  The painting showed the artist puffing a pipe while wearing a bandage over the torn stub of the ear he had recently severed.  Vincent looks haunted, like a man who has begun to realize that his life has just shifted permanently sideways.

van gogh

One day I saw Professor Bob standing in front of the poster.  He grabbed his scarf, wrapped it around his head, mimicked the act of smoking a pipe, and hunkered down.  He sucked in his cheeks and looked mournfully up at us.  Professors Larry and Steve shouted and laughed, and I asked, “What’s so funny?”

Larry told me that a grad candidate had brought along his wife on his interview.  She was a hair dresser who most likely had never attended college.  She had seen Bob standing near the door earlier in the day, pointed to the poster and asked Bob if the painting was a portrait of him.

I met the candidate later in the day and discovered that he was a small town boy from Ohio.  He spoke simply about his work, and I asked him what projects he had planned for grad school.  He told me that he painted portraits of anyone willing to model for him.  He didn’t have any rationale for his selection process and didn’t wish to explore an underlying theme while developing his work.

I liked the man, but knew that the professors would reject him if he didn’t come into his afternoon slide show with a plan of action.  I knew that the profs wanted to see a conceptual model.  He might explore issues surrounding homelessness by painting street people.  He might survey modes of masculinity by contrasting football players to poets, blue collar locals to high-toned academics.  He could investigate the shifting standards of feminine beauty by painting women who fit the definitions of attractiveness in different times and cultures.  Example:  a Rubenesque woman contrasted with an emaciated Twiggy-like model.

But the man from Ohio gave me a blank look when I tried to coax him into picking a more complex project.  He simply wanted to paint people and had never given much thought to issues inherent in the field of portraiture.  I’m sure that he’d never heard of “The Male Gaze’, and didn’t understand that a person’s clothing, posture and expression revealed clues about their social status and group history.

I changed the subject when I saw that my efforts were pointless.  I asked him how he liked Delaware.  I remembered the difficulty I had in adjusting to East Coast culture after moving to Wilmington from Dayton, Ohio.  I had been unprepared for the rudeness, the social preening, the thin-skinned hostility.  Ohio Man jumped on the topic and told me a story about a waitress in a Delaware diner who yelled at him when he asked for more coffee.  He said, “I was polite and nice as pie, but she’d like to have torn my head off over a refill.  I told my wife, ‘Things sure are different here.'”

His paintings looked good to me at the slide show.  The proportions were accurate and the draftsmanship sure, and the flesh tones shimmered clear and fine.  His brushwork was lively, and the paint thick and juicy.  The guy had talent.  But he blew it when he started to talk.  He pointed to a portrait of an old man and said, “This is my Grandpa.  I showed it to him when I finished it, and he said nothing.  I worried that he thought it was no good.  But he smiled to show me that he liked it and that he was proud, and that smile meant more to me than anything anyone has ever said about my work.”

Ohio Man waited for the profs to say something pleasant in response, but Larry stared at the floor, Bob smirked, and Steve glared at the candidate.  Ohio Man looked flustered but continued as before.  He delivered heartwarming stories about subjects in forthcoming slides.  Aunt Mattie suffered from diabetes, but that didn’t stop her from making decorations for the grade school Christmas tree.  Uncle Jim sold shoes in a shop downtown, and he always remembered a repeat customer’s name.  Cousin Jean planned to join the Navy after she graduated from high school because she loved her country and wanted to see the world.

I spoke with the professors after Ohio Man packed up his slides and joined his wife in the hall.  I expected more jokes, but the three men had grown solemn.  They couldn’t believe that an artist who had made that much progress had failed to develop one critical line of thinking.  The profs couldn’t find a hint of ironic detachment in the paintings, not a scrap of socio-political thrust in his attitude toward his subjects.  The man was simply a painting machine.  He’d offer nothing but greeting card homilies in critiques, and would do little to challenge his fellow students.

Bob, Steve and Larry rejected Ohio Man and sent him back home.  I  sometimes thought of him when I passed the office and saw the Van Gogh poster.  I hoped that he’d found a refuge among people who liked him and his work and valued his innocence.

Night into Morning

I fall asleep in front of the living room TV around twelve, and wake up around two or three.  Wide awake, I make the habitual mistake of booting my computer.  I check my e-mail, look for messages on Facebook, watch comic routines on YouTube.  I fall back to sleep with my laptop at my side as I lay in bed, and I feel a bit of shame when I wake up with a dark screen beside my pillow, the battery sapped.  And I wonder what played on and on while I drifted off and dreamt odd dreams.

I usually wake up between 7:30 and 8, eventually stumble to the kitchen, search for a semblance of life at the bottom of a coffee cup as I share breakfast with Judy.  The day doesn’t truly begin until sometime after nine when my grogginess finally evaporates like fog in bright sunshine.

Last night I retreated to my room at quarter to twelve after listening to Stephen Colbert’s monologue, and discovered a dog under my cover sheet when I sat on the bed to take off my pants.  Sedgewick had sneaked away early and found shelter for the night. Shakespeare followed me from the living room, jumped onto the bed and settled on the lower left.  I turned off the light and lay on a two foot wide strip of mattress with Sedgewick folded against my spine.  Shakespeare eventually lodged in the crook of my knees, which made rolling over difficult.

At four in the morning my neighbor, Joe, had his latest blow out with a roommate.  (These quarterly festivities are held, inevitably, in the carport fifteen feet away from my window.)  Roommate accused Joe of damaging his truck.  Joe protested his innocence.  Roommate said, “I thought we was brothers.  But now you’re lying to me.  You’re gonna pay for my truck!”  Threats and accusations followed, a heavy motor rumbled to life, and roommate drove away.  He returned a few minutes later, however, and the argument resumed at higher decibels.  No one mentioned a gun or threatened to use one, and I didn’t hear punches landing.  I decided to let it go.  I only call the cops now when a threat of death and permanent damage seem imminent.

Sedgewick stirred at seven and woke me up.  I heard Judy open her door and walk into the hall.  The dogs stayed put, however, and didn’t chase her to the bathroom.  I took a blanket and threw it over their heads to tease them, but they accepted the covering as a gift, settled beneath and fell back to sleep.  I woke them up when I finished morning ablutions, and led them to the back door.  I yawned and batted away mosquitos as the two sniffed, peed, and convened over signs of cat, armadillo, and raccoon incursions.  The clouds hung low and gray, and we didn’t linger long.

I made scrambled eggs for Judy and me, and let Sedgewick mooch a thin shaving of cheese.  We had a good conversation, I washed dishes, and then I took the two dogs for a long walk.  I deposited their droppings under the Cassia bush in the front yard, washed my hands and retreated to my studio.  I listened to a chapter of “A Gentleman In Moscow” as I worked on a painting entitled, “Dog Days”.

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At 10:30 I browned some chicken in a pan and began to prepare lunch. We ate at 11:30, and the morning ended.