Challenging, complex works featured in “Mullen: 2009-2012”

Philip Mullen’s work could be described as a fusion of abstract and figurative styles with a touch of mystery. Created in multiple layers and filled with subtle hints of objects and figures not obvious at first glance, many of his paintings seem to play tricks on the viewers’ eyes, drawing them in for a closer look.

The Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum in Myrtle Beach is exhibiting “Mullen: 2009-2012” through April 25.

The artist’s early work, from the 1960s and early 1970s, was primarily figurative but later evolved into more abstract styles, as he explored the world of color field painting. By the end of the century, Mullen returned to his roots, incorporating figures into his art once again. This exhibition comprises 45 of these more recent works, all of which are acrylic on canvas except for three works on paper.

(The South Carolina Arts Commission’s State Art Collection includes five of Mullen’s earlier works, including Herin Regal, which recently toured in Contemporary Conversations, Part II.)

The following article, written by Kathryn Martin, originally appeared in Villa Voice, the newsletter of the Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum. Reprinted with permission.


Dr. Philip Mullen, whose exhibit Mullen: 2009-2012 opened January 13, recognizes that not everyone “gets” his paintings right away.

Philip Mullen, Jane's TableIn a recent conversation, he told us, “I’m hoping what people will do when they come to see the exhibit is first think there might be enough here to interest them.  And when they leave be thinking these are the most complex paintings they have ever seen.”

Mullen is used to controversy surrounding his art. His 1969 work Cola. Wall (which appeared in the Art Museum’s recent exhibit The Artist’s Eye: A Journey through Modern and Contemporary Art with Sigmund Abeles) won first prize in a Guild of S.C. Artists competition and was subsequently acquired by the Columbia Museum of Art. The response to the large, dramatic painting – which has a nearly life size image of an African American nude was immediate, and unmistakable.

“Eighty-four people petitioned the Museum never to show my work again,” he recalls, though adding that in later years audiences have not only warmed to the piece, but express enthusiasm about it.

Mullen, who claims not to hail from anywhere in particular went to nine schools before getting out of high school, admits to having no particular artistic calling until college, where he casually enrolled in some art classes. One of his teachers was Peter Busa, a groundbreaking abstract expressionist painter and an associate of Jackson Pollock who is now termed a ‘highly collected’ painter (the artist died in 1983). While joking that Busa once told Mullen he was his “worst student ever,” the professor nevertheless was a profound influence.

“He gave me something to grab onto in my life,” Mullen says. “I realized that this could be something profound, and not just a hobby.”  He soon found himself spending far more time on art than on what was then his major.

After acquiring a B.A. in Radio and Television Speech, an M.A. in Studio Art and a Ph.D. in Comparative Arts, he accepted what would become an ideal job, from the University of South Carolina at Columbia. As a member of the university’s Studio Art Department, he could devote a sizeable portion of his time to painting, and, during his 31-year tenure, would be allowed some 9 years’ leave time to create art.

Philip Mullen, Blue CeramicsDuring one such leave, just after having one of his works accepted to the Biennial of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum, Mullen spent a year working in New York. There he reveled in being part of an international art scene, while still knowing that he would be returning to South Carolina at the end of the year.

“New York is not someplace I wanted to raise kids,” he admits “and I liked teaching at the University.”

Upon his retirement from the university in 2000, he was named Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art.

Mullen describes his teaching years as a period when he was “incredibly driven to do artwork.” And during that period, his painting evolved from primarily figurative work to one that would be perceived as more abstract, but which he describes somewhat differently.

“I would still be painting figures, but more and more air space developed between the figures,” he notes. In his painting Louvered Door, for example (which appears in the current exhibit), the air is “making its presence known, pushing itself forward more than the objects.”

At one point, he says, he would “leave the figures out and just draw the air.” Over time, however, he started “sneaking objects back in, subtly at first,” he admits. Perhaps reflecting this revisiting of his earlier work, 41 of the 42 canvases in the current exhibit are re-workings of earlier pieces: paintings which had been finished but are now shown in a different form.

Among the terms that have been used to describe Mullen is that of an “artist’s artist,” a title that pleases Mullen.

“I take that to mean I’m an artist whose work other artists want to look at,” he says. “They’re finding something in there, some subtleties that maybe they can take away. Even though the work might be a little more challenging for the general public.”

Mullen: 2009-2012 will be on display at the Art Museum through April 25. For more information, visit Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum.

Images: Above, right: Jane’s Table, 2011, acrylic on canvas; left: Blue Ceramics, 2011, acrylic on canvas

Via: Franklin G. Burroughs-Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum