James Mullen

James Mullen, Bowman Island II, 2006 Courtesy Sherry French Gallery, New York CityMaine is a perennial magnet for landscapists, and James Mullen (b. 1962) has staked out a slice of the coastline as his special province. In the best works in “Time and Tides,” his recent exhibition at Sherry French Gallery in New York City, the spaghetti-box format seems a particularly apt fit for the shallow pools and shoals of trees he depicts. The 20-by-60-inch Bowman Island II (2006) is a successful example of his signature formula. A low island of trees on the horizon and a foreground coulisse of mossy rocks provide structure for the shimmering expanse of light-reflecting water. The exhibition title alludes to the carpe diem message of an old adage, about the forces of nature waiting for no man, but Mullen’s work is strangely becalmed. Instead of seeking plein-air immediacy, he distends the moment of fading light. Illusionistic space is handled convincingly, but the lack of human presence and a muted palette contribute to an otherworldly, almost symboliste look. In Last Light (2006) the residual warmth of day—embodied in a pale, flushed yellow tinge—is confined to the right side of the picture; the left side, dense with rocks and woods, is already enveloped in blue-grey shadow. What unites the two sides of the composition is the repetition of tree trunks dividing the picture plane vertically, marking off intervals of space like the measures of a musical score. The artist’s observation of nature is sensitive, but his construction of paintings is deliberate. He describes his compositions as “formal equations,” and his editing of the raw visual data pulls the viewer towards an awareness of the temporal/spatial continuum. Slender, rhythmically placed tree trunks are used again in Harraseeket (2006), to organize a tripartite composition. The delicate pillars in the foreground are caught in the same lemon-curd, raking light that washes over the rock-strewn tidal pools behind them. It’s a decorative painting, in a positive sense, suggesting a Japanese screen or a fin-de-siècle Nabi mural. All the works discussed so far are oil-on-canvas or oil-on-linen, but Mullen also paints on Plexiglas, which he sees as a stable support that “allows for both seamless blending as well as autographic brushwork.” Stockbridge Point (2006) is painted on Plexiglas, and it has a different look. The rippled reflection of the forested far shore is well executed, but the light seems harder. At eight-inches-square, with a vertical orientation, the composition doesn’t breathe in the same way the elongated compositions do, and full sunlight makes the artist’s greens less mysterious. At their best, his narrow, panoramic paintings have a cool refinement. They are frieze-like meditations on the edges of nature where land and water meet. Sherry French Gallery, Starrett-Lehigh Building, 13th Floor, 601 West 26th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (212) 647-8867. On the Web at www.sherryfrenchgallery.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, Volume 24, Number 2