Out of reach

drawing by Karl Mullen
Unschooled, but don’t be fooled: A painting and drawing, both untitled, by the eminently influenced Karl Mullen.

painting by Karl Mullen

If art is a record of the times, Karl Mullen’s impotent, armless figures will tell future generations who we were as a nation in the year 2005.

But they don’t shed much light on the subject of so-called folk art or on Mullen, the adulterated genre’s current cause celebre.

About the time you think they’re as murky as they can possibly get, the boundaries of folk art just get murkier. One dictionary definition gives us “a simple, unsophisticated form of art based upon traditional beliefs and methods.”

However, much work being exhibited and sold as folk art today is far from unsophisticated, and most of it has little to do with the traditions and beliefs of a particular people, much less their methods. The recent folk art exhibit at the Upstairs Gallery in Tryon, for instance, showed works by at least two artists holding Master’s degrees in their fields.

Mullen never studied art in school. But he is hardly folk art’s mythological loner, pocketed away from contemporary life, charmingly unbalanced and immune to influence. A popular musician, he is, in fact, currently the director of the well-known, Philadelphia-based musicians’ showcase World Cafe Live!. Like Mullen, many who are billed as folk artists, outsider artists, or untrained artists are well traveled, well educated, get TV and the Internet, and can buy whatever materials strike their fancy. Any objective approach to the work is difficult, if not impossible.

And Mullen’s local exhibit at American Folk & Framing does little to clarify things. The work is interesting in a number of ways: It is gestural and attractive in its color choices — and some pieces are strongly emotional. Further, Mullen’s selection of materials is unusual. While many folk artists use bits and pieces of leftover house paint, Mullen opts for powdered pigments combined with walnut oil. And while it’s difficult to determine what effect this has on the works visually, it does give them an uncommon odor.

Mullen grew up in Ireland and lived in London and in Paris before coming to the United States. He began to exhibit his artwork here in the early ’90s, and met with instant commercial success. Music as a theme runs through the paintings, none of which is titled. In one piece, the stick figure of a man is painted in red, shaded in chartreuse. He plays a violin, while a blue man strums a banjo and a woman executed in orange beats a hand-held drum. Mullen scrumbles the backgrounds in these pieces to achieve a flat plain from which his figures stand out. In one portrait, the woman has a bright-orange face and ochre hair. Her lips are outlined in white, and white dots decorate her clothing. A childlike continuous line describes her eyebrows and nose — but she looks depressed.

Mullen also shows a dark landscape with a group of tiny houses snuggled at the foot of a vague mountain range, plus a couple of other works depicting modes of transportation. But the train painting, and, to a lesser degree, the one of a racecar, make too sincere an effort to look childlike.

Conversely, the quick rendering in other pieces gives a sensation of ardor and passion. And then certain figures, the armless ones, stand helpless — although they were hardly created from the vagaries of a helpless mind. Some of them, suspended without the demarcation of a ground line, are lifted straight from art-historical references. If they could, these figures would wave thanks to Picasso and Rouault.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer. Her work is currently showing as part of Road in Sight: Contemporary Art in North Carolina at Duke University.]

The Karl Mullen exhibit opens with an artist’s reception from 5-8 p.m. on Friday, June 3, at American Folk Art & Framing (64 Biltmore Ave.). The exhibit runs through Saturday, June 25. 281-2134.

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