Originally created 01/17/97

Mullen still-lifes bring 19th century into the present

A friend of James Mullen told the artist it was appropriate he show his work at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art.

The Gertrude Herbert, the friend said, is a 19th century building that has been adapted for a 20th-century use.

You could say the same about Mr. Mullen's still-lifes and landscapes.

"I think my work is very much about a 19th century tradition, but hopefully extrapolated and developed a little bit further," Mr. Mullen said.

Mr. Mullen, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, won the Best of Show award at the Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival in 1995. He will show his work through March 7 at the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, and will give a gallery talk at tonight's opening reception for the exhibit.

Still-lifes and landscapes, as Mr. Mullen sees it, have a sort of retro appeal. They're so out, they're in.

"I think with landscape and still-life, there's no expectation for them in the days of video and television and photography to carry an intense message, so I think there's a responsibility that's been removed from that work," Mr. Mullen said. "I think it's been opened up again and it's fair game."

One of the most distinctive aspects of Mr. Mullen's paintings is the way he mixes still-life and landscape.

In one painting, for example, traditional still-life fodder such as fruit, a piece of cloth and a plate are set up on a windowsill. In addition to seeing the objects in fine detail, you also see a fully-rendered landscape outside the window.

To mix things up even more, one of the objects in the still-life is a photo reproduction of a landscape painting by another artist.

The effect is to create different fields of vision in one painting.

"I like the idea of the microcosm of the still-life and the macro of the landscape," he said. "One's an intimate space, something we can control and understand, and one's a macro space that's totally out of our control."

A painting called The Doors shows how Mr. Mullen can create the same effects in a natural setting, without traditional still-life objects.

The painting shows the inside of a big, abandoned railroad house. It has plants growing inside and puddles on the floor. Its big doors open out to a forest. His painting captures the dank interior and the sunlit forest outside.

"There's something about that interior, going through that (interior) landscape to get to that outside world," he said. "It's a lure. I like the idea of having that at the far side of the painting."

The railroad house is in Savannah. Mr. Mullen, who grew up on a New Jersey farm, has been living in the South since 1991, when he came to teach at the college. All but four of the 39 pieces in the show were done by Mr. Mullen since his arrival in the South.

Mr. Mullen captures many of his still-lifes and landscapes in real time. He does that not to show off his craft, but to slow down time. Precise detail increases the sense of stillness, he said.

"I want to have an image that will reward the viewer if they keep looking at it," he said.

On stage

What: Paintings in the South: James Mullen
When: Through March 7. Opening reception 6 to 8 p.m tonight. Gallery talk with James Mullen at 6:30 p.m.
Where:Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, 506 Telfair St.
How much:Donations of $2 for adults and $1 for children and seniors requested.
Phone: 722-5495


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