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White Out 

Painter Phillip Mullen sees the light

Phillip Mullen likes white acrylic paint. White is his medium and light is his message. Mullen uses white paint, a designing eye and a knowing hand to compose uncommon illustrations of natural light. Associate colors of the spectrum -- mostly reds, pale greens and aquatic blues -- are his supporting cast. But white paint is the lighthouse keeper.

Mullen's descriptions of light are presented to us through a side door -- using our own serendipitous encounters with extraordinary light. The paintings now on display at Elder Art Gallery on South Boulevard are references to remembered moments when light stopped us in our tracks.

Arresting encounters with natural light can be remembered by us all: morning light cutting through window blinds and wobbled across rumpled bed sheets, a forest floor fractured by light filtered through a leafy canopy, western light cut flat across a canyon wall. Mullen culls a thousand such moments and synthesizes them on canvas.

"Light #2" is a painting of cups and saucers, vases and pitchers, perched on surfaces close to a window ledge. The windows are shuttered and interior light is laid across the objects like liquid ribbons. All the objects are blue and white. The commonness of the setting, the random and glutted arrangement of porcelain and glass, is our anchor of recognition of form and object. That familiarity lets us in the door.

Blue and white porcelain and glass. Unextraordinary except for how the objects shimmer and glow, how the light galvanizes us to the common sight and allows us to go beyond the objects. Given time in front of the canvas, cups and saucers become abstract outlines, fields of color and spatial distortions of light -- lyric patterns of light and dark. On continued viewing, following our little transformative vision into the abstract, the objects reappear, but our memory of the cups and saucers has been altered. Common objects are made extraordinary under the skewed tutelage of the artist's light-bending hand. Mullen repeats this magic throughout the show.

Mullen has a serious streak of influence running through his veins and out onto the canvas. The influence is from West Coast artist Wayne Thiebaud. Thiebaud paints frothy pop images of pies you could just eat, and slick, loopy San Francisco streets that make you dizzy if you stand and stare too long. Thiebaud insists we enter his paintings with mind, eyes and body unconditionally. His paintings are warm wet mud squeezed through your fingers.

Muller cops Thiebaud's tactile richness and come-hither gooeyness, invoking his artist's license to wade into juicy painterly immoderation. Both artists indulge, with select restraint, in the post abstract expressionist's liberal chant of more-is-more. But unlike most of Thiebaud's work, Mullen abandons thick paint in areas of his paintings to achieve optical movement.

The best examples of those paintings illustrate Japanese Carp -- Koi -- trolling contained bodies of water. The Koi waft through washes of translucent blue water. Scaled fish flesh becomes thick and pasty under Mullen's brush. Paint runs in swaths across gelatinous bodies. Thickness of paint and articulation of color and detail bring fish closer to the canvas surface; deeply submerged Koi are washed out, less distinct and warped by the water's distortion.

Our eyes swim with the movement of the fish. One curved yellow Koi swims in front of another mottled orange Koi, which passes another turning at an invisible glass wall. Illustrated movement on the static canvas surface is achieved with Mullen's manipulation of light, and is further enhanced with his use of thickly painted opaque fish swimming through a thin washy ground of water. The implied movement of the fish spurs the actual movement of our eyes.

Mullen also lights the movement fire under static objects. "Korean Produce #3" and "Stone Patio and Ocean #5" hang side by side alone on a central wall in the gallery. Each painting portrays still objects rendered animate with line, color and his dance of light.

"Korean Produce" is yellow and orange, "Stone Patio and Ocean #5" is white. In each painting, Mullen employs similar means to achieve disparate reactions -- the former is frisky, funny and garish, the latter a subdued and interior tableau.

Mullen's thick fruit is saturated yellow and orange, with texture incorporated to force forward the finger-friendly food. Dark outlines and cavities between the fruits give the painting a cartoon character and further push the edibles forward into our hands. The painting is robust, aggressive and juicy.

The patio painting is beach, sky, and water, each differentiated more by memory than line, color or contrast. Thickened lines denote water; sky and sand merge. The subtle vista is seen above two wicker chairs in the foreground. The chairs are thickened strains of woven paint patterned on a wicker weave. The gulf between the two paintings is wide -- one is a gleeful bellyful, the other a study of insular stillness.

Mullen's gift of textured touch is used with both force and restraint in many paintings; all his works waft between imposed restraint and unfettered force. He shows a range of emotive evocations using his honed and intricate tools of object/ground composition, textural paint application and the play of light on objects.

And with a load of white acrylic paint.

Phillip Mullen's solo exhibition will be at Elder Art Gallery, 1427 South Boulevard, through August 20. For more information, call 704-370-6337 or visit

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