Leaving – The Brooklyn Rail

New York City

Nathalie Karg Gallery
Bridget Mullen: quits
March 25 – April 30, 2022

Playing with horror, but relying mainly on spiritual articulations of the abject and the grotesque, Bridget Mullen positions herself at a very strange crossroads. His distorted portraits and rambling tableaus sit between the sharp geometry of Cyril Power, Jacques Villon, or Tamara de Lempicka and the scruffy, brutal, gooey caricatures of Don Martin, R. Crumb, and, above all, Philip Guston. His current exhibition at Nathalie Karg’s is called Quit, and many of the canvases included here appear to depict singular figures in the depths of tearful despair or shame, hiding their faces behind elongated fingers and dripping or serpentine tendrils of hair. In the big piece always snakes (2022), the figure has been entirely supplanted by a mop of pink hair melting into abundant blue tears, bordered on the left by a twisted and anguished hand. Just as often, however, Mullen’s paintings erupt into uncontrollable reproductive crises – the brooms in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice come to mind – a kaleidoscopic doubling, tripling and beyond. We see nearly identical figures engaged in the same movement or activity, their indistinct or extra-convoluted and wrinkled features distorted into an unreadable and often unrecognizable maze of meticulously rendered shadows and lines.

Mullen uses the differences of her surfaces as the dynamo that propels her sense of confusion: she simultaneously juxtaposes wriggling frightening interludes with smooth, clean forms. Her flash-on-canvas paint contrasts an almost unbreakable medium of opacity with her own ability to create precise, feather-thin vibrant lines, all in a dull matte finish that seems to absorb light. Often, Mullen brushes the paint sparingly over the previous coats and even the raw linen to make the woven texture a counterpoint to the carefully filled areas. Consensual Painting (2020) consists of rectangles of flesh-like topologies that look like shrunken heads or unwrapped mummy faces intercepted by solid black bands of paint. In the same way, A spur, a painting, a reef, the chord (2022) depicts pairs of brown and blue hemispherical smooth shapes – possibly buttocks? – but so clean and round that they seem as mechanical and solid as a Factory Sheeler. However, an identical veiny, wrinkled eye or scrotum peeks out from the top of each blue shape, and ruffled hairs hang down from the space between brown and blue. At a time A sting… and Interior design (2022), there is a diagonal downward movement of the picture plane, but the form of these paintings seems to perpetually cycle up and down like on a treadmill. In Pit (2022), and similarly in Consensual Painting, Mullen goes even further, completely rejecting the precepts of composition and harmony. It refuses to allow the eye the familiar respite from discerning positive space from negative space, or even understanding up and down. It’s not disorganized, but wonderfully terrifying and disorienting.

Sometimes Mullen’s monstrous forms freeze into figures, encompassing a range and variety that plays with a satirical collection of traditional female attributes – flowing hair and a full figure, but compressed into a grotesque homunculus (a word Mullen uses herself- same) similar in concept to the bulbous figures of Louise Bonnet. Free to be you and me (2021) and Easel Navigators (2022) are a pair of such portraits. In Free to be… Tight, half-closed red eyes rest beneath tousled blonde curls, sandwiched between a pair of hands, palms spread outward and wrists delicately tied together with a pretty ribbon. Easel Navigators has a similar compressed format: a pair of Don Martin’s hands lean on wisps of golden hair that again compress a pair of sleepy eyes, this time against a pair of perfectly round half-breasts, seemingly wedged into a geometry perfect with a black corset. Unlike the paintings of these sensual static figures, various lanky forms move. They have ridiculously long feet, in the cartoonish shoes we associate with Guston’s tortured thugs. Dropouts (2) (2019-2022) shows a pair of glam-wigged, red-bodied characters who streak across the canvas as if straight out of R. Crumb Life goes on’. Quit (2020-2022) is an even more explicit reference to Guston, featuring a collection of feet in various shoes positioned perpendicular to each other, the slender, bony legs emerging from the various shoes forming a kind of basketwork. Again and again, Mullen obscures the living figure in a tangle, sometimes curved and twisted, sometimes linear and sharp, like a cross between a cheese slicer and Venetian blinds. Perhaps the smallest room is the key: a pair of Guston-like eyes, squashed together and sporting long, tendril-like lashes, peering through solid brown blinds, half peering and half trapped. We are inevitably intrigued and frightened, but also feel pity for these strange Quitters.