What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

January 6, 2022

Lee Mullican
Computer Joy
Marc Selwyn Fine Art
November 20, 2021 - January 8, 2022

Lee Mullican

Lee Mullican (1919-1998) was well known and respected as an abstract painter whose works were infused with criss-crossing lines against solid backgrounds referencing everything from cities to microscopic and celestial worlds. In the mid 1980s, while a professor at UCLA, Mullican began working with the university's Program for Technology in the Arts. He was interested in learning how his painting style could be translated into newly emerging digital forms. While his paintings were soft and organic, he was enamored and fascinated by the computer's jagged lines and pixelated designs. On view at Marc Selwyn Fine Art are select examples of his paintings from 1966-1985 juxtaposed with his digital files projected on the wall, as well as offered for sale as non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.

What are NFTs and why are art galleries so excited to present digital artworks in the form of NFTs? As a digital asset, an NFT can be a file, a song, a text, or an artwork that is offered for sale online and can only be purchased with cryptocurrencies. They are often unique, though some are variations on a theme. While NFTs are all the rage, they are also criticized with respect to the energy costs associated with their transactions. The NFT marketplace has finally given value to otherwise purely 'digital work' and encouraged the proliferation of these creations.

As Mullican's digital artworks were created pre-Photoshop -- they are TGA files with resolutions of only 512 x 482 pixels, not really enough to be output as large-scale prints -- the idea to project them seems apt. What is most exciting about these pieces is Mullican's experimentation and how they relate to his paintings. For example, the file for Boogie Woogie (1987) is a dizzying array of overlapping rectangular forms against a dark background. As the composition builds and intensifies the red, maroon, pink, purple, yellow and white forms appear to break apart into vertical lines. The forms appear to oscillate moving forward and back within the abstract space. When seen in relation to the 75 inch square painting Winter in Taos (1974), it is easy to imagine Mullican filling in the squares and rectangles that appear in this work with bright colors, darkening the background and allowing the ladders that flow within the painting to become individual pixels that flow across the screen.

A similar comparison can be make between the painting Totemic Space (1985) and the TGA file titled Computer Game (1987) where wide, jagged blue strokes glide across a black background overlaid with white and yellow lines that lead to concentric circles (or targets) with bright green, red, blue and black disks. Within the image there is plenty of what we now call white noise -- the disintegration of the form into black and white pixels which become a contrasting pattern. Totemic Space is comprised of undulating yellow and white roughly rendered marks that flow across a light blue ground juxtaposed with straighter lines that appear like paired down hieroglyphics or mathematical symbols.

From today's sophisticated digital world, Mullican's TGA files feel a bit simple and a little out dated. However, the fact that they were created using 1980s technology and that Mullican (an artist in his 60s) was interested in how he could use software to in a way that paralleled the ideas in his painting makes them significant as both historical and formal experiments. Mullican explored the relationship between the analogue and the digital so successfully and it is remarkable seeing the paintings and digital files together. This coupling allows for the beginning of an interesting dialogue.