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Imperfect Worlds

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Martin Mull: Hindsight

at Carl Hammer, through April 19

Scott Anderson

at Peter Miller, through April 26

While illustrators like Norman Rockwell offer images of an impossible childhood utopia, other artists mine their childhoods for works that balance wish fulfillment with hints of nightmare. Martin Mull and Scott Anderson, two artists of different generations, both accompany their quests for an idyllic past with the recognition that it never really existed, pairing fantasy utopias with suggestions of the artificiality of any imagined paradise.

Born in Chicago in 1943, Mull grew up in farm country in northern Ohio in a family that was far from wealthy; his parents built their home out of wood scavenged from an abandoned water tank. "We had indoor plumbing, but that was the extent of the amenities," he says. "We still were shoveling coal in our furnace. There was no fun money, no family vacations, very little extracurricular anything. I found my greatest happiness in making pictures as an escape." Planning to become an illustrator, he discovered the world of fine art late in high school, through a Picasso book. Now living in the Los Angeles area, Mull is best known as a film and television comic actor; before that he was a singer-songwriter. But unlike most celebrities who paint, he points out, he was an artist first. He calls his acting career his "day job," something he fell into to support himself while making art.

Mull's eight paintings at Carl Hammer draw on the images that impressed him in childhood: "matchbox illustrations, cereal boxes, Saturday Evening Post covers, the little 'draw me' guy from the Westport Famous Artist School ads. These were like promissory notes of the good life that I was not leading at the time, and my paintings try to reclaim some of the melancholy of disappointment." Breakfast shows two smiling kids' faces, spoonfuls of cereal about to meet their lips, floating disembodied at a disturbing nearly upside-down diagonal in the sky. The tilt and the illustrator approach duplicate some of advertising's simplified dynamism, and though the image is odd, it has a cheery, even exaggerated optimism: these monumental heads float above an ordinary suburban home, based on a photograph of the house across the street from Mull's as a child.

It's hard to imagine the narrative that would explain the weird, complicated scene in Arrested Development. Two firemen stand at left, one shining a flashlight into the bright sky, while a man in a bathing suit leans way over to examine something and five miniature little girls in the foreground march off toward a picture-perfect meadow. Three much larger little boys bend over to observe them, and a brightly colored clown sits at the lower right. Aside from the boys looking at the girls, no one seems to be interacting with anyone else, and the figures are painted in different styles: a black-and-white photo for the boys, three-dimensional brightly colored plastic for the clown, film noir for the firemen, a Dick-and-Jane-style reader for the little girls. Mull told interviewer John Brunetti in 2000 that all the characters in the reader (which he used as a child) were "within two pounds of their ideal weight, the right height, clothes absolutely clean, no illness, no unemployment....Part of my thinking was to take some of this imagery, which is still very vital and real to me because it is what I was weaned on, and deconstruct it...and catastrophize it...then, try to rework it back into another format that is beautiful." And indeed it's impossible to reconcile the picture's seemingly perverse or disastrous elements--are the boys potential molesters? why are the firemen there?--with the cheery perfection of the field the girls head toward with so much confidence.

Mixing borrowed styles makes it obvious that each is an artificial construct. The background in Arrested Development is closer to an illustrator's illusion than an actual lawn, and in Ariadne's Thread II the solid "shadings" of an idyllic forest suggest paint-by-numbers pictures. In Actress the head of a little girl walking a tightrope over a waterfall is floating just above her body, and to the right a man stands on an observation platform perched artificially, perhaps dangerously, on the rocks above the waterfall. Comparing the attraction and charm of an illustrator's paradise to the illusion a performer creates, Mull also reveals how precarious such fantasies are.

Scott Anderson's seven works on paper--the eighth is on vellum--at Peter Miller also stem from childhood experiences. He made his first drawings in response to those done by his architect father, who would sketch things Anderson requested--an object from Star Wars, a futuristic city. Born in Urbana, Illinois, in 1973 and now a Chicagoan, he grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City and received an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2001. His mostly untitled works often show suburban utopias rendered with architectural precision but filled with visual and conceptual discordances. A drawing of a golf course breaks at a diptychlike line down the middle. A walkway that seems almost level with the lawn in the background is perched over a deep gorge in the foreground, suggesting the artificiality of suburban landscaping.

While Mull says he's influenced by "the entire history of art from the Lascaux cave paintings on," Anderson is more specific. Like Mull, he was largely unaware of the art world and planned to become an illustrator until high school, when a Jim Dine exhibit introduced him to fine art. Today the self-destroying machines of Yves Tanguy and the grotesque paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are both influences, as is 15th-century Sienese painting for its "multitude of perspectives--different possibilities of space--existing simultaneously."

Another untitled drawing, which uses various perspectives and radically different scales, includes several fantasy scenes. One shelf in a turntable console holds a sci-fi futuristic city while the other has suspended in front of it a picture of a rural area; overhead lights and a walkway suggest it's a stage set. Anderson writes in his statement that he wants to be "surrounded by things and ideas that mesh with how I live and how I fantasize," and these scenes suggest the wish-fulfillment aspects of TV and Hollywood movies. A structure to the right of the console and of the same height could be taken for a giant building with a vast roof garden; the top seems yet another constructed scene, with miniature trees, a huge potted plant, and a swimming pool.

Anderson is also fascinated by the fascist architecture of Mussolini's Italy--related, he says, to his "fascination with suburban architecture and its failed utopian aspect." Both styles have what he calls a "homogenizing" effect on culture. The exhibit's most chilling work--the one on vellum--shows a suburban interior from a decorating magazine. The room's paneled walls and large picture window float against a white background, which gives them a clotted, cramped feel, undercutting their perfectly arranged but superficial beauty. To the right Anderson has drawn the cross section of a tree--the wood needed to construct the walls, its rings suggesting the woodcutter's violence against nature. A platform perched above the room with a precariousness that recalls Mull's Actress supports what looks like a smoking barbecue (actually an ashtray) and an oversize machine gun pointing outward, hinting at the paranoia of fallout shelters in the 50s or of more recent survivalist movements. Fear, Anderson seems to suggest, is at the root of our artificial paradises, and violence is needed to both create and defend them.

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