Landscape Painter Reaches High Ground

Painter James Mullen

Story posted September 22, 2004

It's a heady moment for painter James Mullen, one he has worked prolifically for over twenty years to achieve. It is the eve of his first major exhibition in New York City. Several of Mullen's lush Maine landscapes are part of a group show entitled "Mainely Maine," at the Sherry French Gallery in Chelsea, running through September 2004. French, who is a leading dealer of representational American painting, has also just agreed to represent Mullen.

Mullen has been an assistant professor of art at Bowdoin College for the past five years, where he has grounded dozens of students in the fundamentals, techniques, and essential joy of painting. Visual Arts Department Chair Mark Wethli says Mullen is "good for all seasons" and treats his students with the same gentle attention he brings to bear on his paintings.

He is also something arguably braver: a realistic Maine landscape painter whose reflective eye covers subject matter made famous by icons such as Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, and more recently, Neil Welliver. Mullen's does not present a monumental view of nature, however, but a pastoral entry-point for reflection. His is a palette where digital photography and traditional painting meet and prompt the viewer to question the vagaries of what is knowable and to marvel at the world's elusive beauty.

"Some landscape painters go for big and dramatic," says Wethli, "the drop-dead gorgeous view. Jim will look off to the right or cast his eyes down and ask us to look at a color relationship or an effect of light that would probably escape most of us. He deals with the haiku of landscape - the gentle, the elliptical and quixotic."

Mullen recently met in his studio with Bowdoin Associate Director of Academic Communication Selby Frame to talk about painting, teaching, and his recent inroads into the New York art scene.

SF: Being a landscape painter in Maine must be very saturated with history and assumptions and the shadow of those who have come before you.

"Because there are so many practitioners up here it's a wonderful place to be in some respects. But it also makes it incredibly hard to be taken seriously as a landscape painter."

JM: Yes, there's a really rich tradition here; it's a heavily trafficked path. Because there are so many practitioners up here it's a wonderful place to be in some respects. But it also makes it incredibly hard to be taken seriously as a landscape painter. If you tell people that you paint the Maine landscape and paint it fairly representationally, they feel they can see your painting in their mind. People may think that it's not fresh enough to garnish their interest. But I have no complaints: I'm thrilled to be doing what I'm doing. In terms of an influence, or a context, I look more at photographers than I do at landscape painters.

SF: Yes, your work has a very photographic feeling to it. Not quite photorealism, but something akin to it. Do you work primarily from photos?

JM: It's an interesting relationship. Actually, I have painted onsite, outdoors for about 17 years. I used to work at the University of New Hampshire in the late '80s, and every summer I would travel up the Maine coast and do plein air painting. I would take those back with me and in the winter work off them as sources. Later, when I lived in Savannah, Georgia, and Indiana, I did the same thing.

Mullen in his studio.
James Mullen in his Bowdoin studio.

I love working onsite. It's a constant process of editorial vision, looking, deciding. The weather is constantly changing, the light, and especially the shadows. You must react constantly and make those decisions a thousand times. It really refines my sense of what is important. It helps me clarify what I'm responding to, rather than just taking a photograph and recording everything that's in it.

And yet, I wanted to have the association of photography in my work because I think that people tend to believe a photo is representing a more objective truth and they relate more to the landscape through photography, not painting. Then, when they are drawn into an intimate space with my work, they realize it is a painting, an interpretation.

SF:They don't even discover you until they get up close and see the brush strokes.

JM: Yes. Let the subject matter lead them to something else - something more subtle is my hope. One of the things I love to celebrate is maybe a moment of retrospection. I want to bring people in and suspend a singular moment for them to contemplate. Instead of just glancing at something, to spend some time and look into the image.

Quadro #10, oil on canvas
"Quadro #10," oil on canvas, 2004, 18x18.

SF: Many of your works remind me of that moment when you stop--for instance, while cross-country skiing -- and notice the light on the snow. Or if you space out by the water, not really looking at anything, and suddenly come back to your surroundings.

JM: That would be great. I would hope for that kind of epiphany. The funny thing is, I haven't worked outside in about two years now -- I'm working principally from digital photos. I have two little kids, so the idea of going to the top of Mt. Cadillac and painting for a few days is not an option. I find that with a digital camera I can blow thirty pictures and go back and edit, crop and alter. I'm not beholden to the photo source at all. But perhaps I can discover something in the photo -- a transition of color, a detail, which can become the subject matter of a painting.

SF: Can you give me an example?

JM: This painting, Quadro #9, came from a photo I took at the end of Maine Street in Brunswick, along the Androscoggin River. It was a sunny day - and as you can tell, I'm very attracted to water - so I went down there and began shooting. I was drawn to that sense of change that comes with water, the sense that it can reflect, that you can go into it, that it's constantly in flux.

Quadro #9, oil on canvas"Quadro #9" oil on canvas, 2004, 18x18.

Ostensibly, the subject of the work is the shadow of the bridge to Topsham and the flotation balls that keep people away from the fish hatchery. But for me, the transition of color became the subject matter. Also, I want sometimes to suggest that there's something happening off-camera, if you will. So that everything isn't just contained within the image.

SF: That's true. This work gives me the feeling that the main landmark or event is just outside the frame. It creates a very subtle tension, because the water is very hypnotic and the composition is strong and self-contained.

JM: I'm a huge fan of American painting, and with traditions there are certain tendencies of how people put elements together that are really institutionalized. Right now I'm interested in figuring out what the conventions are. How do things have to be arranged - whether it's landscape photography or painting?

In a fairly conventional landscape there would usually be a diagonal line from the foreground that would lead you in. There would be a front space, a middle, and a back space. And usually there would be a framing element, for instance, a tree on one side. Usually the space inside the image leads you back to a distant space. That was the European model for centuries and because most of the early photographers were trained by painters on how to compose, a lot of photography has had the same convention. It's different in the last generation, but there are still a lot of painters - and particularly painters in Maine - who tend to compose in exactly the same way. That doesn't interest me very much anymore.

SF: I hear the painting professor creeping into the conversation. I'm wondering if you find it difficult, as many do, to juggle your work as a teacher with your work as an artist?

JM: I think teaching keeps me honest. It's easy to be so taken by what you're dealing with in your work that you can become removed from a certain type of reality. Some people find that kind of seclusion beneficial, but it's not for me. Teaching is good because it keeps me questioning a lot of things I assume. I make a statement in class and a student says, "Well, why is that better than that? Is tension supposed to be better than tranquility in a painting?" I go, "Uhhhh ... you've got a point!" I like it that the students here are engaged - and they're engaged in everything. I've never been at a place that was more outgoing. Bowdoin students engage a problem and work really hard.

SF: How many really serious art students come through Bowdoin?

"I'm always nurturing the students as much as I can, but I'm slow to say, 'You should go and be a professional painter.' I actually think it's kind of irresponsible."

JM: There's such a range. I have two students who are economics majors, minoring in visual arts. Others are in government doing an art minor. Then there are the students that are going to go hard-core art all the way. We've had some wonderful people graduate and move on and be successful. But I think it's a great program even if they don't do that. There is a lot of crossover, and frankly I find that more fertile in terms of peoples' points of view - as opposed to when I was in art school and everyone wanted to be an artist and wanted to have a schtick. Up here, everybody is better rounded. They have a broader context for conceptualizing work.

Being an artist is a really difficult life in a lot of ways. I never glamorize it. A lot of my friends weren't able to find jobs, and you do what you've got to do. Life keeps coming. I'm always nurturing the students as much as I can, but I'm slow to say, "You should go and be a professional painter." I actually think it's kind of irresponsible.

SF:And yet, your career has been fairly sustaining, and most recently, seems to be taking off.

JM: I've been very fortunate. I have a gallery in Indianapolis that has represented me for eight years and I've been fortunate with sales out there. I also had a solo show at The Hay Gallery in Portland over the summer and I currently have a dozen works in a show at the Alpers Fine Art Gallery in Massachusetts. So it's a busy time.

Having Sherry French now represent me in New York is a thrill. There is a major art conduit between New York and Maine. Partially because of the tradition of painting in Maine, but also because many of the people who are interested in purchasing artworks have a long tradition of going to Maine. People are in Chelsea looking at work all the time. It's exciting to be in that part of the city with a person who is very well known and represents a lot of good artists.

SF: So, what's next?

JM: I'd love to get back to doing some sculpture - which is what I did for my undergraduate degree. I really want to do some constructions with wood. But there are so many things I'd like to do. I'd like to spend the summer just doing printmaking. Will I get to it all? Absolutely.

Forest
"Forest," oil on linen, 2004, 10"x74".


Follow this link for an online gallery of Mullen's recent paintings.

Story posted September 2004



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