Art review: Martin Mull at Samuel Freeman


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“Comedian” is not funny. One of the most stirring paintings in Martin Mull’s show at Samuel Freeman, it centers on a seated man, slightly hunched, his features bleached by the false light of the television screen before him. Behind him, a woman lies in bed, shielding her eyes from the morning’s glare. Turned toward the numbing pitch of a distant car salesman rather than the sensual opportunity within arm’s reach, the man reeks of detachment. Mull paints him deftly, without fuss, in a monochrome palette straight out of black and white TV or an old photograph.

That melancholic mood wafts through Mull’s show, inflected by wry humor and a conflicted sort of nostalgia. Mull works from old pictures, familial and found, newsworthy and ordinary, interweaving personal and collective memory in montages either mildly or dramatically disjunctive. In one painting, he places a pair of ‘50s-era sunbathing women in the middle of a street riot; in another he puts an all-American suburban home in the path of a brush-clearing fire.


The paintings strain toward social commentary but are most penetrating when, as in “Comedian,” they distill the ordinary into a potent concentrate. Several works on paper and on linen fit this description: “The New Refrigerator,” “Sleeper” and “Apologist.”

Mull seems to be heading more and more toward this kind of singular, charged image, rather than relying on the sparks generated by discontinuous pastiche. Over the years, he has unified his painting style, too, shedding the bravado of postmodern performance for a more assured, consistent retro look. The strongest work here captures Mull’s trademark combination of ease and unease, economic boom and psychic bust through the simplest and cleanest of means.

-- Leah Ollman

Samuel Freeman, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through Dec. 18. Closed Monday.

Images: Martin Mull, ‘Comedian,’ Samuel Freeman.