With the work of Mark Mullin, there is always more than meets the eye. This exhibition, by focussing on his recent non-representational paintings on paper and on canvas, engages not as much with an aesthetic assessment or appreciation of Mullin’s work as with how it functions. Over the past 15 years or more, Mullin’s painting has steadily developed both aesthetically and intellectually. His work is mature in design, in its handling of the medium, its manipulation of the materials. As viewers, we are engaged immediately. Drawn into the works and held there. We look at the paintings with the feeling that we almost know what we are looking at – a visual corollary for searching for a word that is “on the tip of your tongue”. It is a goal, perhaps a strategy, that for Mullin is deliberate:

“It is my strategy that the origin(s) and reference(s) for these works change with interpretation. An organic thread-like filament of paint appears biological, then shifts to Japanese writing found on food packaging, then again to tag-like names from street graffiti. Pockets of deep recessive space dissolve, suggesting a “pre-world”, which in turn is swallowed by replicating forms, oddly autonomous yet keenly interested in symbiosis. No form settles into character for long before an alternate proposition comes to light. The result is something of an impenetrable “catch me if you can” engagement. The act of looking becomes a fool’s game of defining.”

In a review for Canadian Art magazine, fellow Calgary patient Chris Cran describes the somewhat quizzical experience, “wait a minute, isn’t that a face? Isn’t that a room? Sensuous passageways open onto smoky layers of space, and before I know it I am held in a delicious suspension for I don’t know how long. Eventually I alight on a miniature backlit street scene that transforms into a “Kilroy was here” moment, a tiny graffiti of flat woven brush strokes that floats on the surface and seems to observe the vast space, just as I am doing. I recall Hudson River School paintings and postcards from the 1950s, with their surrogate viewers gazing at the sublime, and I am brought back to my body. I am in a gallery in front of a painting. Space, space, space. There is no accounting for it.”

Mark Mullin: I’ll climb in your eyes will give Nickle Galleries and all viewers the opportunity to visit, or to re-visit, questions about the fundamental questions of painting as a medium, and as an essential means of communication. Just as there is a distinction between truly non-representational painting and abstraction, Mullin draws a line between what can be understood through spoken or written language, and that which can only be comprehended in visual terms.

The words and stories around Mullin’s work – references to science or nature, ways of being in the world, humorous and somewhat clumsy shapes that summon balloon animals, or articulations of painted space that summon stages and theatres – are helpful in talking to the artist about his work. So too, is the understanding that the nearly narrative feel of his current work is related to the nightly stories he creates for his young daughters. And yet, these paintings are not about any of these things. They feel like that, they feel like something we know, yet that something is elusive.

It seems, perhaps, refreshing to encounter an exhibition, essays and programming that consider painting solely by its own terms. It is a challenging proposition however, to engage with work that is not readily topical, not connected to a discipline outside itself. To move past the modernist and postmodernist battles about the death(s) and rebirth(s) of painting, to consider Mullin’s paintings for what they are – which is not as they appear.

Mark Mullin: I’ll climb in your eyes will be accompanied by an exhibition catalogue featuring an essay by Diana Sherlock.

Organized by Nickle Galleries, curated by Christine Sowiak with support from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

how to properly play in rainbows, Mark Mullin, 2018, oil and acrylic on paper, 42” x 30”