Karl Mullen's palette is the larder: red wine, walnut oil and ink, Barry's tea, pastes in silver tins, powders like exotic spices. To watch Mullen paint is to watch a weird amalgam of line chef, body-worker, bartender and day laborer, each having sworn off the traditional tools of the trade.
In his studio--the just barely heated, former horse stall of his 19th-century barn--he drops a fresh piece of 22" x 30" Arches paper onto the concrete floor. Standing over the paper, he pours two small circles of walnut ink, leans over to spit into each pool, watches the chemical sizzle for a moment or two, then crouches, nicking into each pool with the edge of a sharp-tipped palette knife, scraping away, pulling down strands of ink in curves and arcs. These gestures form the outlines and initial features of the human figures characteristic of Mullen's work.
Rambunctiousness is afoot. Ardor is always just around the corner.
A prolific artist, Mullen typically has dozens of paintings at varying stages of completion. Stacks of them lean against the rough-plank walls or lie in the shallow drawers of metal drafting cabinets. Clutter is everywhere; no surface is clear. A banjo sits on top of a bowl of bottle caps. A wooden crate of brushes and ink jars teeters on a djembe. When a mouse chews a hole in a painting, opportunities appear.
Like Dubuffet's art brut, of which "outsider art" is the English approximation, Mullen's paintings privilege the raw over the cooked, spontaneous process over studied composition, the iconic over the naturalistic, primitive over the polished.
Cassandra J. Cleghorn, Poet