Magazine article Artforum International

Carter Mull

Magazine article Artforum International

Carter Mull

Article excerpt

CARTER MULL'S DELICACY, 2010, is a compact, ungainly tabletop composition, an intriguing and idiosyncratic mixture of still-life photography, miniature audiovisual equipment, batteries, sound, and video. Its title suggests the faculty of taste, of course, both literally and metaphorically. Indeed, the apparatus-heavy arrangement calls to mind the mad-scientist routines of molecular gastronomy; the silvery tablecloth underneath the mise en place is itself an actual-size photographic image of a lemon, rock salt, Danish Creamery butter, and macarons on a concrete floor. A tiny projector, powered by a battery nearly equal in size, beams a video across the table, onto a small "screen," supported by a ringed menu holder, backed with a historical (and slightly altered) illustration of a lobster.

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The ten-minute video cuts back and forth between a 1984 episode of the outlandish cartoon series The Catillac Cats, and footage of a lobster roaming around the artist's Los Angeles studio floor, which is littered with many of the ingredients depicted on the tablecloth. Appropriate to the scenario's Surrealist pedigree, there's something unsettling about the crustacean's encounter with a plate of Day-Glo macarons. Meanwhile, in the cartoon, the gang of stray felines, led by urban dandy Riff-Raff, travel undersea to discover boundless treasure, which they must ultimately abandon so that it doesn't bog down their Cadillac-cum-submarine. Like the lobster grabbing hold of the macarons, Riff-Raff and his crew find riches but quickly discover that possessing them is futile.

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The video is accompanied--disjunctively--by a little Fender amplifier playing what initially sounds like a child clumsily reading Marxist indoctrination. The words turn out to be the lyrics to Gang of Four's urgent post-punk rant "Natural's Not in It" (1979): "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure/... The body is good business/Sell out, maintain the interest/... Dream of the perfect life ..." The revelation is humorous but also moderately depressing: Will this anonymous kid spend the rest of his life in pursuit of treasure? Seeking out lobster dinners? Is there any escape from the contemporary mythology of the perfect life?

Delicacy raises many more questions than it can answer, but still it sets the proverbial table for Mull's larger body of work, which implicates the personal economy of production and expenditure that is played out in the artist's studio within the larger circulation of capital and meaning. If Gang of Four invoke the "problem of leisure," then Mull suggests that the artist's problem is that his or her work is never actually done, and that objects exhibited in public only point to, but never fully explicate, a practice of everyday life. This buffet of signifiers offers immediate sensory pleasure--Mull is not afraid of seducing the viewer--but it's hardly easy to digest.

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Mull's work has been included in several recent surveys of contemporary photography, such as the 2009 edition of New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the traveling show "Image Transfer: Pictures in a Remix Culture," which closed last month at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Such medium-specific exhibitions have somewhat paradoxically pointed up a motif central to Mull's oeuvre: the ever-increasing difficulty of adequately defining what a "photograph" is (or isn't) and the impossibility of quarantining "the photographic," particularly in its digital states. Whether one sees a banal ubiquity or sublime multiplicity of images in the world--or both--the photographic is ever more synonymous with the world itself. Facebook, Flickr, and Google have made images of nearly everything and everyone immediately available--rendering even Douglas Huebler's Sisyphean objective to "photographically document the existence of everyone alive" seem startlingly possible forty years later. …

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