CHICAGO — Judith Mullen’s new work consists of sculptures and paintings that look like detritus, like the sort of thing that accumulates in rivers or forest floors after heavy storms: swirls of leaves, bark, wood chips, pine needles, things discarded by humans, whipped together by wind and rain to float indolently on the wet and dry surfaces of the world. In her show called A Good Wander at Linda Warren Projects, Mullen finds a visual equivalent for these random weather-driven occurrences through a process of accumulation of materials. Using plaster, fabric, paper, wood, sawdust, grout, and more, she glues bits and pieces of stuff together, weaves them with wire, solidifies them with enamel, and adds muted colors in oils, inks, or enamel.
The sculptures that come out of this might look like something floating on a pond, as in “Afoot VII,” or like a lattice of tree branches, as in “Afoot X.” When you get up close to them, you see all kinds of stuff buried in the surface: wire mesh, colored discs that remind you of bottle caps, bits of paper that have been crushed and torn and compacted into tiny spaces. No two pieces are exactly alike (for example, one is suspended from the ceiling), yet they all look like they are the result of allowing the process of gathering and binding to dictate the final shape. Mullen confirmed this in conversation with me:
Wandering (or walking) and the love of it goes back to my childhood. About ten years ago I recognized that the act of walking had become a part of my studio practice—actually, a vital part. Wandering, when it happens, is similar to working with line in the studio, letting go, opening up to the experience without an agenda or rules.
The wall-hanging sculptures are more successful than the paintings in this show, where the squashed pigment and the splashes and drips of enamel seem to have been executed too quickly. One exception is a painting called “Afoot V,” in which the marks seem to have been placed with a care similar to the sculptures. But it’s those objects that draw the eye, with the intricate meshing of materials, the strong contrast of dark and ivory tones, and the use of resin and enamel to impart a glossy surface to the grunge.
Garbage, in other words, has rarely looked this beautiful.
Judith Mullen’s A Good Wander continues at Linda Warren Projects (327 North Aberdeen Street, Suite 151, Chicago) through July 5.