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Review: The longer you look at Lee Mullican's 'Marble Drawings,' the more — or less — you will see

Review: The longer you look at Lee Mullican's 'Marble Drawings,' the more — or less — you will see
Lee Mullican, “Untitled,” 1966. Pastel and acrylic on paper, 23 by 28-5/8 inches. (Marc Selwyn Fine Art and the estate of Lee Mullican)

“Lee Mullican: The Marble Drawings, 1966-1970” is a gem of an exhibition that is not to be missed. At Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 15 works on paper catch Mullican (1919-98) at the top of his game: transforming the simplest of marks into abstract compositions that are flat-out sublime.

Each piece starts simply. Using acrylic or oil paint, Mullican has covered each plain sheet of paper with a single color — most often the supersaturated black of outer space, but sometimes deep ocean blue, blazing orange, smoky brown, lovely lavender or dappled gray, which he appears to have applied with the tips of his fingers.

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Keeping things simple, Mullican then used the dulled end of a pastel crayon to press circles on his painted sheets of paper, sometimes filling in every square inch. The circumference of the crayons determined the sizes of the circles; the largest are a little smaller than a dime, the smallest not much bigger than the head of a pin.

Finally, Mullican added one or two highlights to many of his circles, creating concentric rings. From up close, they resemble tiny targets. From a few steps back, the glistening highlights make your eyes see spheres, which look like marbles and give the series its name.

Lee Mullican's “High Way,” 1969. Pastel and acrylic on board, 30 by 20 inches
Lee Mullican's “High Way,” 1969. Pastel and acrylic on board, 30 by 20 inches (Brian Forrest / Marc Selwyn Fine Art and the estate of Lee Mullican)

As soon as you see marbles, there’s no going back. Mullican’s drawings suddenly seem to be upended tabletops jampacked with marbles — each defying gravity to become a sun in its own solar system.

The colors are pure Mullican: a ravishing combination of stunning primaries, plus the organic and the outlandish. Fun counts for Mullican. So does excess. And imaginative transport that verges on the hallucinatory.

“Angel Wave” takes you beneath the sea’s surface to coral reefs abuzz with electricity. A pair of untitled horizontal drawings makes you feel as if you’re beholding a night sky so star-studded that the real thing pales in comparison.

Lee Mullican's “Ancient Wheel,” 1966. Pastel and acrylic on board, 30 by 20 inches.
Lee Mullican's “Ancient Wheel,” 1966. Pastel and acrylic on board, 30 by 20 inches. (Robert Wedemeyer / Marc Selwyn Fine Art and the estate of Lee Mullican)
Lee Mullican's “Spiderworld,” 1970. Pastel and acrylic on paper, 24 by 18 inches.
Lee Mullican's “Spiderworld,” 1970. Pastel and acrylic on paper, 24 by 18 inches. (Robert Wedemeyer / Marc Selwyn Fine Art and the estate of Lee Mullican)

“High Way” evokes an aerial view of an illuminated city, “Spiderworld” resembles a ruby-encrusted shawl, “Rootworld” recalls pre-Columbian beadwork and “Ancient Wheel” puts you in mind of the golden age of Vegas, when the facades of casinos did double duty as megawatt billboards.

Crop circles and LED signage on the fritz also pop into consciousness. Reptiles, rodents and birds sometimes appear, only to dissolve into their surroundings. The longer you look, the less certain you are about what’s in front of your eyes. Losing your bearings — if not your marbles — never looked better, nor more stimulating.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 9953 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. Through Feb. 2; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 277-9953, www.marcselwynfineart.com

Lee Mullican's “Untitled,” circa 1968. Pastel and acrylic on paper, 24 inches by 18 inches
Lee Mullican's “Untitled,” circa 1968. Pastel and acrylic on paper, 24 inches by 18 inches (Robert Wedemeyer / Marc Selwyn Fine Art and the estate of Lee Mullican)

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