James Mullen’s career has a put a spin on an old cliche: Not only can he teach, something he’s immersed himself in since 1963, but he can also do. The results of that ‘do’ are currently on display at the Palmer Museum of Art.
“Lit with Piercing Glances: Linocuts by James Mullen,” his exhibit that opened at the beginning of the year and will run into May, is a retrospective look at the linoleum block print, or linocut, an overlooked and occasionally forgotten field where Mullen’s expertise reigns supreme.
“It’s a very time-consuming process and very labor intensive, but it looks simple,” Mullen said. “It is simple in theory, but like so many things, simple is more taxing than you may assume.”
A printmaking technique, the linocut medium uses a sheet of linoleum as a surface that the artist can use to cut with a knife or other sharp object to create a desired design. It is then followed up with an application of ink, resulting in a striking final product that hit its pinnacle of popularity in the 1950s. In addition to Mullen, some of art’s most recognizable and esteemed masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse have dabbled with linocuts.
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Mullen is a true throwback to an era that eschews the expansive lofts and technological wizardry of many modern artists in favor of a smaller room and perhaps the most dependable tools in existence: his hands.
“I work in a very small room creating my linoleum block prints,” Mullen said. “I don’t need a press, all I need are my hands and a wooden spoon.”
Mullen’s flexibility and ability to adapt has provided him with this successful longevity, but he was able to lay claim to the medium’s fundamental basics thanks to the time that he spent at Penn State in the early 1960s honing his skills as a student enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program. His natural talent and an extensive background in academia allowed Mullen to wow the head of the art department at the State University of New York at Oneonta, and he parlayed this chance meeting into a second career as a faculty member at the school.
“I think that linoleum block printing is not a very popular process, and there aren’t a great many people working in it today,” Mullen said. “I started doing it because it was available as a teaching tool when I was teaching at SUNY Oneonta and the material was free. It’s a petroleum product and it’s only made for artists. A lot of so-called ‘professional artists’ shunned the material because they felt it was common and childish since it was used in the public school system for many years, but it’s a very versatile medium.”
This exhibition at the Palmer Museum has been four years in the making and Mullen is thrilled that he is able to bring some of his life’s back work to Centre County.
“I think it gives one a great sense of calm, which is certainly one of my objectives as an artist with those particular works,” Mullen said. “I’m very fascinated with volume and space, the spaces around objects and I’m much involved in the simplicity of these objects. You don’t have to worry about taking away an important message and you don’t really even have to understand it, you just have to look at it. Some people are disturbed by that because they want a message that they can put in their little pocket, but there’s no message here other than just the mute objects being as they are.”
“Lit with Piercing Glances: Linocuts by James Mullen” really is a retrospective in every sense of the word and its creator couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out for him.
“It’s a great pleasure to be able to devote one’s time to making pictures,” Mullen said, “I’m 77 years old and a lot of people will busy their minds with crossword puzzles, but making art is a heck of a lot harder than doing a crossword puzzle. It’s great mind food and it’s a great eternal challenge.”