The beauty of the ephemeral world

Olympia Gallery’s mission statement reads: “Olympia is committed to dismantling the cis-male-centric art canon.” This means making a space for female artists at the start of their careers, which is a good reason to visit. Another reason is to support a DIY space that is on the opposite end of the real estate spectrum from the warehouse-sized galleries that display their expensive wares. As much as they claim otherwise, blue chip galleries do little to change or challenge the status quo. They are too busy maintaining the steady flow of money in the global economy.

Lucy Mullican: both felt and seen at Olympia is the artist’s first solo show in New York and is not to be missed. Her materials include watercolor, colored pencil and naturally dyed rope, which she applies to cardboard, plywood, paper and muslin. Among the works Mullican has created are a few sets of shoes she found in various places where she has lived and worked, including China, Macedonia, New Zealand, Australia and Germany.

Lucy Mullican, “Untitled” (2022), watercolor on board, 16 x 20 inch
Installation view of Lucy Mullican: both felt and seen at Olympia gallery

What connects the washes of light grey, green and blue, the watercolors, drawings and embroidery, and the shoes on tables, like sculptures on pedestals, is a feeling of transience and vulnerability. Disused, the shoes evoke both an absent life and the preservation of materials that are different from us over time. When I looked at an unusually shaped pair of black boots that I was told Mullican had found in China, I was reminded of the last lines of Tomas Tranströmer’s poem “After Someone’s Death”: “The samurai looks insignificant / next to his armor of black dragon scales” (translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly).

What survives and what is lost seems to be one of Mullican’s preoccupations. Knowing that time will eventually encompass our creations and us, she makes no gesture towards the immutable. Working in semi-transparent watercolor on modest wooden panels with visible grain, she draws us past the image and leads us to the relationship between the watercolor marks and the lines of the wood grain.

Installation view of Lucy Mullican: both felt and seen at Olympia gallery

Mullican does not seem to have a fixed approach to her use of watercolor. Shapes can be outlined by the grain of the wood or be completely independent of it; or, using semi-transparent colors, she incorporates it as another element in the composition. In addition, the density of the colors changes from solid to transparent and from saturated to pale. In each work, it seems as if the artist was interacting with the grain of the wood, rather than seeing the support as a blank surface.

Mullican works with a simple yet flexible vocabulary of tubular shapes, cloud-like spots, ellipses and irregular shapes, moving between abstraction and representation. At no point did I feel that her painting was becoming predictable. In one of the larger works of the exhibition, Mullican, with a palette of blue and green, depicted an irregularly shaped, cross-like shape, extending beyond the four edges of the wooden panel. In the interior of the sloping cross, or blue water, the artist laid out green islands, the shapes of which reflect the visible lines of the wood grain pattern. Within some of the islands is a blue shape that transforms it into a flat, donut-like shape. The relationship between the watercolor and the wood grain is one of recognition. In this way their interaction is part of the meaning, as is the feeling that it could all fade, that everything is in a sense ephemeral in the light of time.

While Mullican’s work expands on and revises landscape abstraction as well as the work of artists such as Arthur Dove and John Constable, I also feel that her interaction with the wooden supports and her dedication to watercolor puts her in a category all of her own. While the makers of landscape abstractions generally thought their paintings were impervious to time, Mullican creates works of art that are exposed and susceptible.

Lucy Mullican, “Map Of The Island” (2021), watercolor on board, 8 x 10 inches
Lucy Mullican, “Light On Water” (2021), watercolor on board, 12 x 12 inches

Stand alone and alongside these abstract, often enigmatic works, Mullican makes aerial photographs of landscapes populated by trees, roads and fields – inspired by naive art. In “Untitled” (2022), the centrally located abstract form, an irregular red ellipse bordered by a thin band, is undecipherable. What is it a sign of?

In works that explore the phenomenon of light shining through water, evoke the Northern Lights, depict clouds reformulating their form or depict the layers of the earth’s layers, Mullican uses watercolor differently or draws with colored pencil. On a large vertical sheet of cream-colored muslin she has sewn sections of naturally dyed rope, the light brown and brown tones of which remind the viewer of earthworms.

Mullican, who is under 30, is a young artist, but her vision and sensitivity suggest the maturity of her experience. In any case, I feel that she has laid the foundation for a career whose trajectory is likely to surprise and appeal to viewers following her work, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Lucy Mullican, “Floating” (2021), watercolor on board, 10 x 8 inches

Lucy Mullican: both felt and seen continues at Olympia (41 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 21. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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