Primary Concerns

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller

“I find great truth in the dictum “repetition is the foundation of clarity.” – Kevin Mullins

Repetition is integral to the artistic process. From student years through maturity, artists practice new methods at length to develop skills, extend concepts to form series, and reprise previous ideas and processes to new ends. For Kevin Mullins, repetition weaves throughout his art and life as he seeks to find clarity.

Repetition first appears in his on-going search for learning. Mullins grew up in central New York State and considers Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute School of Art in Utica his artistic beginning, but he credits many institutions for his education – Rochester Institute of Technology, where he learned theories of design and the Bauhaus; Kansas City Art Institute, where he learned to draw and paint; Chelsea School of Art in London, where he learned to print; and the University of North Carolina, where he learned to really think.

Mullins’ use of layers is intimately connected with process and repetition. Considering himself both a painter and a printmaker, Mullins builds up colors and patterns through the application of many, many layers, giving his finished pieces translucence and a sometimes mysterious feeling of depth through the relationships of color. While painting processes dominate his earlier work, his current work eliminates media hierarchy and puts painting and screenprinting on an equal playing field. The duality of media generates a subtle back-and-forth, where the reproductive nature of screenprinting implies the elimination of the artist’s hand but the direct nature of painting forcefully reasserts it. Such shifting duality moves throughout Mullins’ artisan influences as well, particularly in historical movements that sought to unite ideas of art and craft. Inspired in some works by the utilitarian wallpaper designs of William Morris, Mullins draws upon the repetition of patterns. Like Morris and others, Mullins hints at the union of art and craft through his many-layered beautiful objects that cause the viewer to wonder about the process of making.

Part of the series process for Mullins revolves around the repetition and extension of visual concepts but on varied substrates. While for years Mullins has worked on Sintra, a lightweight but stiff industrial board made of PVC, his newest iterations explore silver vinyl and unmounted steel. The series “Procession 1-9,” with an underlying metallic ground showing through the transparent colors, demonstrates a marked aesthetic difference from the earlier works on white Sintra. His presentation has shifted in some cases as well. Mullins first used exaggerated horizontal formats in the early 1970s, shortly after finishing undergraduate school, and has continued the format off and on ever since. Some of his newest works, however, move away from the signature long horizontal format to extended verticals instead, repeated side by side. Their visual parallel to Japanese scrolls may be intentional, for the “Sorrowful World 1-3” series reflects upon various aspects of Japanese art and Buddhist culture. During his time as a visiting artist in Japan in 2003, Mullins found particular interest in the history of ukiyo-e prints, a term usually translated to mean “Floating World” but also a homophone for the term meaning “Sorrowful World,” which Mullins says “refers to the Buddhist belief of the endless cycle of rebirth, suffering death and rebirth.”

The artist’s specific use of color, too, represents a repetition of sorts. As indicated by the title of the exhibition, Mullins has a particular affinity for primary, process colors. He first explored the layering and blending of process colors during his education as a printmaker in London; more recently, upon reinvestigating the work of Burgoyne Diller, he returned to process color as one of his “primary concerns.”

An ever curious mind, Mullins displays a continual interest in the work of artists past and present and speaks generously of his influences. Recalling childhood visits to local art museums, he credits the work of Franz Kline with igniting his artistic aspirations, while the paintings and drawings of Paul Cézanne became influential during undergraduate school: “I think his mark-making is as close to music as you can get, two-dimensionally. It was also the first time I became interested in a philosophical approach that seemed Eastern, considering the composition as a whole rather than in parts.” More contemporary influences have included the oeuvre of Lee Lozano, whose paintings he considers “a clarifying moment for me,” as well as the work of David Reed. “Lee Lozano showed me how the two-dimensional could be three-dimensional and David Reed showed me how three-dimensionality could be two-dimensional. I have the utmost respect for these two artists and don’t see how I could be where I am now without having been exposed to their work.”

The almost ritualistic repetition that occurs in the working and reworking of colors and layers finds a parallel in Mullins’ own life. Mullins has practiced Transcendental Meditation for over 40 years, a routine that underscores the artist’s dedication in both life and art. While his titles sometimes include religious references, in as the Crucifixion of Saint Peter series that incorporates the upside-down cross, it might be most accurate to say that rather than strictly religious iconography, the repeated uses of form and color point to a broader notion of transcendence.

This latest work by Kevin Mullins, then, reflects a decades-long engagement with colors, layers, patterns, and process. Though maintaining many of his long-standing primary concerns, Mullins now investigates new formats, incorporates fresh surfaces, and finally discovers a non-hierarchical balance between painting and printmaking whose translucent brilliance astounds the viewer. Repetition has ushered in clarity.