Toying with horror, but relying mostly on witty articulations of the abject and the grotesque, Bridget Mullen positions herself at a very strange crossroads. Her contorted portraits and disjointed tableaux lie between the crisp geometricity of Cyril Power, Jacques Villon, or Tamara de Lempicka and the shaggy, blunt, and gooey cartoons of Don Martin, R. Crumb, and, most significantly, Philip Guston. Her current exhibition at Nathalie Karg is titled Quitters, and many of the canvasses included here seem to depict singular figures in the depths of tearful despair or shame, hiding their faces behind elongated fingers and drippy or serpentine tendrils of hair. In the large piece Still Snakes (2022), the figure has been entirely supplanted by a mop of pink hair melting into copious blue tears, bordered on the left by a twisted, angsty hand. Just as often, though, Mullen’s paintings erupt into uncontrollable fits of replication—the brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice come to mind—a kaleidoscopic doubling, tripling, and beyond. We see almost identical figures engaged in the same motion or activity, their indistinct or extra-convoluted and wrinkled features distorted into an unreadable and often unrecognizable maze of meticulously rendered shadow and line.
Mullen uses the differences in her surfaces as the dynamo that propels her sense of confusion: she simultaneously juxtaposes wriggling creepy interludes with smooth, clean forms. Her flashed paint on canvas sets a medium with an almost-unbreachable opacity against its own ability to create precise and feathery-thin vibrant lines, all in a dull matte finish that seems to absorb light. Frequently, Mullen brushes the paint sparingly over previous layers and even the raw linen to make the woven texture a counterpoint to carefully filled-in zones. Consensual Painting (2020) consists of rectangles of bunched flesh-like topologies that resemble shrunken heads or unwrapped mummy faces intercepted by solid black strips of paint. Similarly, A Spur, An Array, A Reef, The Chord (2022) depicts pairs of smooth hemispherical brown and blue forms—possibly buttocks?—but so neat and round as to appear as mechanical and solid as a Sheeler factory. Sprouting from the top of each blue form, however, is an identical veiny, scrunched eye or scrotum, and dangling down from the space between the brown and blue are scraggly hairs. In both A Spur… and Interior Design (2022), there is a movement diagonally down the picture plane, but the form in these paintings seems to perpetually cycle from top to bottom as if on a conveyor belt. In Pit (2022), and similarly in Consensual Painting, Mullen goes even further, completely rejecting the precepts of composition and harmony. She refuses to grant the eye the familiar respite of discerning positive from negative space, or even comprehending top and bottom. It is not disorganized, but wonderfully terrifying and disorienting.
Occasionally Mullen’s monstrous forms do congeal into figures, encompassing a range and variety that plays with a satirical collection of traditional feminine attributes—flowing hair and full figure, but compressed into a grotesque homunculus (a word Mullen uses herself) similar in concept to the bulbous figures of Louise Bonnet. Free to Be You and Me (2021) and Easels Browsers (2022) are a pair of such portraits. In Free to Be… strained, and red half-closed eyes sit beneath tousled blond curls, sandwiched between a pair of hands, palms splayed outwards and wrists delicately fastened together by a pretty ribbon. Easels Browsers has a similarly compressed format: a pair of Don Martin hands press down on golden strands of hair which again compress a pair of drowsy eyes, this time against a pair of perfectly round half-breasts, seemingly wedged into a perfect geometry by a black corset. In contrast to the paintings of these sultry static figures are various lanky forms on the move. They have ridiculously long feet, in the cartoonish shoes we associate with Guston’s tortured malefactors. Quitters (2) (2019–2022) shows a pair of glam-wigged, red-bodied figures wide-stepping across the canvas as if straight out of R. Crumb’s Keep on Truckin’. Quitters (2020–2022) is a yet more explicit reference to Guston, presenting a collection of feet in various shoes positioned perpendicularly to each other, the thin bony legs which emerge from the diverse footwear forming a kind of basket-weave. Again and again, Mullen obscures the living figure in a tangle, sometimes curving and twisting, other times linear and sharp, like a cross between a cheese slicer and Venetian blinds. The smallest piece is perhaps the key: a pair of Guston-esque eyes, mashed together and sporting long tendril-like lashes, peer through solid brown blinds, half-spying, and half trapped. We are inevitably intrigued and frightened, but also feel pity for these odd Quitters.
By William Corwin