Visual Arts

Beyond the Norm

If you need an antidote for the diabetic coma you may have fallen into after seeing Phoenix Art Museum's syrupy "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People" exhibition, we suggest hightailing it -- stat -- to Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale. The gallery's current group exhibition, which includes recent work by artists Martin Mull and Vernon Fisher, is a sure-fire cure for the gooey but deadly visual confections passed off as fine art at PAM.

Bentley Gallery couldn't have chosen better work to contrast with the cloying mythological perfection of American life in the first half of the 20th century, all so carefully constructed and perpetuated by the country's foremost magazine cover illustrator. The work of painter Martin Mull seems an especially appropriate counterpoint to the invidious, purely illusory Rockwellian constructions on which a fair number of Americans were weaned -- air-filled, cotton candy constructions that have melted into a slimy cultural puddle with age and experience.

Mull's substantial oils on canvas, all a part of a larger series he's dubbed "Fool's Paradise," teem with snippets of images from classic "See Spot Run" primers, required reading for boomers raised in the '40s and '50s. Perpetually smiling, birthday-cake-bearing ladies people these paintings, as do cute furry animals, geese gracefully winging their way to somewhere over distant hills topped with red-roofed barns and Jesus in the role of Good Shepherd.

But Mull's compositions are anything but nostalgic paeans to bygone Happy Days.

Occasionally amputated, sometimes suspended in space, these instantly identifiable icons -- used to teach several generations of school kids to read -- are mixed, matched, taken apart, sliced, diced and eventually eviscerated. Paint-by-number skies through which Mull's geese fly are the foreboding color of steel wool. In one canvas titled Bible Stories II, a Biblical-issue Good Shepherd sits headless next to a perky, apple-cheeked, blond-haired mom who seems to be morphing into a clown; a smiling boy by her side, rendered only in shades of gray, offers a red ball or apple to the decapitated Christ. Manet's nude bather from his famous picnic scene on some grassy French knoll, sans head, joins this same Biblical character in Le De'Jeuner sur L'Herbe, along with, among other bits of childhood imagery, a flying birthday cake.

In A Young Magician's Routine, an eyeless, open-mouthed Boy's Life-type figure (ironically, Norman Rockwell was art director for Boys' Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America) levitates a young, coat-clad girl next to a floating scarf against another paint-by-number backdrop. The girl wears what looks like a pointed witch's hat and appears to be either sleeping or dead. In Mull's hands, once innocuously familiar and comforting symbols take on a baleful, almost gothic quality --more Stepford Wife than Beaver Cleaver.

Mull's unearthing several years ago of grammar school primers from which he learned to read at the age of 6 spurred this latest work, which takes a slight stylistical detour from the artist's previous, less fleshed-out paintings. "I was amazed when I saw these things," says Mull, a well-known comedic actor, a published writer and an accomplished musician with a master of fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. "I realized the world I was introduced to [through reading] . . . offered a promissory note of what life could be like once you can read, of what you can look forward to in your life."

But the pictures in the artist's first readers somehow didn't quite jibe with the hard reality that eventually engulfed him. (Mull's life has not been devoid of creativity and humor, as witnessed by the painter's early Neo-Dada Boston-based art group effort, Mondo Linoleum, "an exceptionally and intentionally inept, seventeen-minute film" chez Warhol and a guerrilla-style exhibit of small works titled "Flush With the Walls" or "I'll Be Art in a Minute," which was smuggled into and hung briefly in the men's rest room of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.)

Mull's reality included being diagnosed with potentially deadly melanoma in the 1980s and fighting a 20-year battle with the bottle, a fight he finally has won and has no qualms talking about.

"In every one of these books," explains Mull, whose work has been included in a number of major museum collections, "was an illustration that basically told us, the little kids, what life could and should be like, which were these absolutely Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, white-as-the-driven-snow, picture-perfect people.

"No one with any kind of weight problem or questionable sexuality, no Satanism, no blacks, no Chinese. Dad always had a job; Mom was always making cookies. The kids were always clean with no scraped knees. I just realized what a load of propaganda these things were. And they were upheld when you turned on your TV by Ozzie and Harriet."

Mull and artist Vernon Fisher share in part the theme of illusion in this group show. But while the introspective Mull intentionally seeks refuge from the Hollywood celebrity constantly stalking him and seems to avoid any reference to it in his canvases, Fisher makes a beeline for 1950s Hollywood iconography in this show.

Fisher's most current work is a series of acrylic airbrush pieces, in some of which he appropriates and conjoins images from old Hollywood films, rendering them monochromatically in a filmy, diaphanous, but photorealistic style. The artist then pits overlaying text -- often misspelled, mistyped or partially obliterated -- against these images, much like Barbara Kruger. Unlike Kruger, who relies primarily on short, pithy punch lines, Fisher's text often ends up being strange little rambling stories or observations, which have no beginning and no end; the viewer is forced into literally filling in the blanks or untangling his knotty, occasionally poignant "narratives," which one never quite knows to be fact or fiction.

This new work bears no visual resemblance to Fisher's famous chalkboard paintings, which have long garnered critical attention, or his less engaging "zombie" paintings of recent vintage. The "zombies," one of which appeared in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, are abstract paintings with crackled surfaces on which alight three-dimensional, perfectly rendered flies that immediately bring to mind clichéd scatological references.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of Fisher's Hollywood-related images to place the artist's new work in context, which, as usual, seems to have a vein of the intensely personal running through it. Cinematic stars Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons are paired with odd poetic observations or current self-help jargon. In Fancy, a large orangey-red airbrush of a very serious Simmons addressing a faceless man smoking a cigarette, a blue palm tree inserted to her left, sports the line: "Count on a murderer for a fancy prose style." Chin in hand, an entirely green Mitchum, joined by a purple, hole-drilled robot toy, gazes at a dark-haired woman above the question, "You're from Venus?" in Men Are From Mars -- a reference to the popular pop psychology best seller which now has a daytime TV talk show counterpart.

Unquestionably, the strongest Fisher piece in the show is Girlfriend, Jan, in which bits and pieces of a story about his purported significant other oddly end with a twist of pathos: "This morning she tells me she's fine, she's in the current of the river of life. . . . Hour later, she's in the shower in her shoes. I say, 'Jan?'"

Despite the paucity of Fisher pieces for added contextual help, Bentley Gallery's group show is, overall, fairly strong and seems to break the gallery's sometimes monotonous commitment to showing mostly nonrepresentational abstraction that often borders on the decorative.

But even third-generation abstract expressionism is a damn sight more prepossessing than that treacly Rockwell exhibition at PAM.

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Kathleen Vanesian