Lee MulliCan: The Taos Clay

| august 2012 THE magazine | 67

CRITICAL REFLECTIONS

Taos Clay: Until a few years ago, students of the art world’s Modernist pantheon who espoused the work of California abstract painter Lee Mullican would have been counted children of a lesser god. Mullican, who died in Los Angeles in 1998 in his seventy-ninth year, was a major figure in late Modernism whose pursuit of his career in California primarily and in Taos, New Mexico, far from Modern art’s nucleus in New York, was a large factor in his being long overlooked in art historical accounts of postwar American art.

Mullican’s deep interest in Surrealism through his association in the 1940s with British artist Gordon Onslow-Ford and Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen led to the collaborative exhibition Dynaton in 1951 at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Similar to the Surrealist experience of the New York School on the East Coast, Dynaton reflected the Abstract Expressionist recourse to mythic and mystical sources found in pre-Columbian and Native American cultures as well as in Zen Buddhism. Critical for this new movement and for Mullican’s later art was the elemental role of nature. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Paalen wrote that for Onslow-Ford nature was the element of water; for himself it was fire; as for Mullican, “… Air is the element for Lee, and all it carries, pollen, feathers, the dreams of birds and spikes of stars and the holy nest of winds ... the ray of sun on the straw.”

While Mullican’s art consists primarily of drawings and paintings, his openness to nature is perhaps even more manifest in the Taos Clay exhibit of wood-fired clay sculptures, dating from 1990, currently on exhibit at Capriccio Foundation’s 222 Gallery. The gallery text for the exhibition notes that “The work speaks of wind and water, eroded rock formations and enigmatic canyon walls. The spirit of New Mexico landscape is in the complicated surfaces and surreal forms that are at once torsos, heads, or gods from an ancient and unknown culture.” No less a factor here is Mullican’s broad knowledge of Western and non-Western art gleaned from frequent visits to East Coast museums during his stint in the Army Corp of Engineers in the early 1940s, and his Corp training in the topography that likely helped define his embrace of abstract linear pattern and striated lines. These influences underwrite and find direct expression in the work’s diverse, wide-ranging visual conceits and evocative motifs.

Two aspects of Mullican’s facture give this eclectic series its stylistic unity in diversity. First, his clay firing technique involves the anagama kiln process. An anagama (“cave kiln” in Japanese) is an ancient type of wood-fired pottery kiln producing fly ash and volatile salts that settle on the pots during firing and interact variously with their mineral content depending on heat, moisture, and the placement and proximity of the pots which affect the flame path as it rushes through the sloping tunnel of the single chamber. The process yields pockmarked, crackled ceramic surfaces that run from the glazed look of off-white porcelain to the matte finish of gray to deep charcoal stoneware. The second unifying element, borrowed from his painting style, is Mullican’s incising of hatched lines into the clay’s surface prior to firing. This calligraphic device pulls the viewer’s attention to the object’s surface; it creates an ambivalent effect that oscillates between plastic to pictorial and so transforms a crafted object to an allusive image that infers its own narrative.

In Untitled #20, one of several pieces in the show that reflect Picasso’s ceramic sculpture of the 1950s, the squat form, hacked lines and crudely scribbled wildeyed face evoke Woman I (1950-52) from de Kooning’s seated-woman series of the same period. Virtually all Mullican’s sculptures bear zoomorphic features quickened by his graphic markings. The dark gray figures of Untitled #27 and Untitled #28 recall primitive monoliths by late Modern sculptors of the 1950s. On a different tack, the arched figure of Untitled #12, formed of flattened and looped coils of clay with Leger-like stenciled surfaces, strides forward like the Keep on Truckin’ character of artist-illustrator Robert Crumb. Camp comics are reprised in Untitled #7 and again in the amorphous shape of Untitled #2, recalling Philip Guston’s images drawn from similar pop culture sources. Untitled #30 seems to enshrine the ineffable grace of a Taoist temple. But the most meditative work in the exhibit is found in sculptures such as Untitled #1 and Untitled #19, whose primal shapes and elemental figures suggest the lost world of Mesoamerica. Perhaps the most potent is the hieratic figure of Untitled #17, which captures the essence of myth at the same time as it conveys it in the artist’s rich motley of Modernist idioms.

Mullican’s anagama woodfiring process is an apt metaphor for his approach to working in clay. As the gallery text notes, “The anagama firing matches perfectly with the surrealist tradition of incorporation of chance and Lee Mullican’s search for archetypical forms in his late ceramic sculpture.” By harnessing his profound grasp of the Modernist tradition to his uniquely American Surrealist aesthetic, Mullican empowered elemental forms of nature to convey authentic, transcendent experience, “the dreams of birds and spikes of stars and the holy nest of winds ... the ray of sun on the straw.”

—Richard Tobin

Lee Mull ican: The Taos Clay

Capriccio Foundation 222 Gallery

222 Shelby Street, Santa Fe

Lee Mullican, Untitled #17, wood fired clay, 11”h x 9”w x 6½”d, ca. 1990.

 Lee Mullican, Untitled #17, wood fired clay, 11”h x 9”w x 6½”d, ca. 1990.

Lee Mullican, Untitled #17, wood fired clay, 11”h x 9”w x 6½”d, ca. 1990.