WICHITA, Kansas — Painter Kevin Mullins (1950-2018) took as his mantra the notion that “repetition is the foundation of clarity,” including it in many artist statements and personal conversations about his work. Kevin Mullins: Fire in the Paint Locker, a posthumous retrospective currently on view at Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art, demonstrates how Mullins took the words to heart: the exhibition highlights his obsessive layering of repeated patterns within individual works but also points to themes and patterns that recurred throughout his career.
Raised in upstate New York but based in Wichita, Kansas, since 1995, Mullins had a sustained impact on his arts communities through his varied roles. As a painter, he engaged with a close-knit community of local artists. As a museum professional, Mullins collaborated with and championed many fellow artists, including Emily Jacir, Andrew Spence, and David Reed, who writes movingly in the exhibition catalogue. And in 1997, Mullins and his partner, Ann Resnick, opened Project Gallery, a cutting-edge arts space operated out of the warehouse they lived and worked in — where they introduced regional, national, and international artists to the Wichita art scene. And yet, despite Mullins’s investment in his local community, the Ulrich retrospective represents one of the first major showings of his work in Wichita. This is welcome, if overdue, recognition for an artist who for decades exhibited nationally and internationally.
For Mullins, repetition was intricately tied up in an ongoing negotiation between the hand-crafted and the mechanical. Trained first as a painter and then as a printmaker, Mullins spent his career developing exquisitely crafted paintings that, by carefully screenprinting thinned layers of paint, appear smooth and mechanically made. The screen became a tool by which to remove the trace of his hand. Mullins came of age with postmodernism, yet his grappling with how much to show or remove the artist’s hand had a much longer historical reach: Mullins spoke of his affinity with an Arts and Crafts valuation of the handmade, yet at the same time expressed kinship with Bauhaus predecessors, whose sought-after union of art, craft, and technology took form in machine-made aesthetics.
Mullins favored all manner of linear grids and fabric patterns, systematically exploring, in dozens of permutations, how a change in screen order or orientation might radically alter surface appearance. An installation of small wooden panels acts as a visual diary of his patterns, recording some of his many experiments in color and layering. Hinting at an art historical lineage, Mullins gave particular preference to half-tone dot patterns. Rather than using dots as the basis of an image, like Lichtenstein, Mullins used dots for dots’ sake, varying colors and sizes in layered abstractions. In Gerhardt, Mullins seems to consciously invoke contemporary German painters like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, slyly inviting any viewer familiar with their aesthetics to squint for a representational image, yet in Mullins’s case the repetitive dots reveal nothing but pattern and color.
“Shackleton,” a room-sized, salon-style installation where dozens of closely hung screenprints surround the viewer on all sides, is a highlight of the exhibition. The abundant accumulation features translucent abstractions, layers of pattern applied to repurposed x-rays. Monochromatic pattern layers mimic the appearance of television static, yet the title invites viewers to look more closely, straining for visions of ships and seascapes.
Like “Shackleton,” most of the works on display suggest that, despite Mullins’s dedication to process-based abstraction, he steadfastly refused to abandon narrative. He delighted in leaving titular clues for his viewers, communicating in code to those who shared his particular brand of cultural knowledge, such as obscure references to music by Cream and Procol Harum. His nods to classic rock are most evident in two narrow vertical paintings that hang as pendants, facing each other across the room: “Fillmore West” and “Fillmore East,” for those in the know, evoke legendary rock concerts organized by Bill Graham between 1968 and 1971. While nothing about the geometric abstraction appears to reference the concerts, the titles themselves conjure a specific time and place where like-minded souls might gather.
In these narrative breadcrumbs, then, we can see Mullins’s personal version of postmodernism. Even while he used screenprinting as a mechanical form of mark-making to eliminate his own bodily trace, his narrative hints imply a fundamental desire for connection with his viewer. His textual references are not simply prompts for viewers to imagine their own meanings, though they are that as well; at their most effective, during Mullins’s life they would have functioned as conversational entry points between viewer and artist, opening up possible relationships. In his absence, we can connect with who he was through the clues he left behind.
Kevin Mullins: Fire in the Paint Locker, curated by Ann Resnick and Dan Rouser, is on view at the Ulrich Museum of Art through August 11, 2019.