Emily Mullin: Untitled, 2016, three ceramic vessels and painted steel shelf, 36 by 36 by 8 inches; at Lucien Terras.

 

 

Emily Mullin’s wall-mounted reliefs feature between one and five handmade clay vessels displayed on painted metal shelves. Like a photographer’s cyclorama, each shelf curves where it meets the wall, extending upward to become a backdrop for the vessels. Mullin placed one or two fresh flowers in most of her ceramics for this exhibition, changing the floral arrangements weekly.

The visual interest of the seven untitled works on view (all 2016) arises from the play between the idiosyncratic forms of the vases, the flat colors of the backgrounds that frame them, and the unruly presence of organic material within the elegant vignettes. Mullin’s ceramics are highly varied, ranging from lopsided urns to complex multi-handled objects reminiscent of archaic amphoras. She painted loose geometric patterns in wax onto each vase before dipping it in a white glaze. After firing, the patterns appear as alternating areas of glazed and unglazed clay. The faux-naive look of these handcrafted objects contrasts with the precisely fabricated metal shelf/backdrops, which are almost all smoothly painted in a single color—pink, mustard, navy—and coated with an eggshell finish. The flowers bring refined instability to the mix. When I visited the show, one work featured three vermilion poppies with bright green stems, each standing in a brown triangular vase that appeared to be dripping with white glaze. The colors and patterns popped against the staid ocher background.

In one of the most complex works here, three buff-colored vases, bodies tapered at the top and bottom, rest on a trio of shelves jutting from a single sheet of dark turquoise metal. The central vase, set on the highest shelf, is the most elaborate, with three pairs of curved handles. Two large orange flowers protruded from the vase. Two smaller vases, each with a single pair of handles but lacking flowers, flanked the central arrangement on lower shelves. As in many of Mullin’s works, the patterns on the vases could be best seen directly from the front, as one might view a painting or photograph. Mullin, who is also a professional photo stylist, has clearly considered how her three-dimensional objects could appear as images. 

Just as Carol Bove’s early shelf sculptures evoke the bohemian world of the Bay Area in the 1970s, Mullin’s works, with their off-key color combinations and goofy patterns, refer to the neo-abstract styles that dominated the design field through her childhood in the ’80s. At that time, careful juxtapositions of understated and flamboyant elements were regarded as the height of elegance. 

Yet Mullin is doing far more than embracing nostalgic design motifs or merely producing sophisticated still lifes. She demonstrates a commitment to the craft of design and a desire to employ as few elements as needed to achieve a desired effect. In that regard, her art reaches back to earlier modernist abstraction (Agnes Martin comes to mind) as well as the Japanese aesthetics that inspired so much early twentieth-century art. 

“Periods,” the title of the show, can be understood as a double entendre, referring to both historical artistic styles and menstruation. The wordplay suggests the feminist charge of the work on view. Mullin embraces fields historically designated as suitable for women—flower arranging, ceramics, and the still-life tradition itself—with equal parts intelligence and restraint. Her reliefs offer a powerful renewal of the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s and ’80s that reclaimed craft and other forms of “female” production to create poignant artwork.