Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bleeding the Playing Possum: The Art of Nikki Mull



memorial artist
Nikki Mull

‘Bleeding the Playing Possum’ is a series of paintings exploring ideas about the romaticization of pain and death in our culture. The artist, Nikki Mull, has graciously agreed to share a conversation about her work with The Daily Undertaker. Ms. Mull holds Fine Arts degrees from Idaho State University, and attended the Seattle Film Institute. She currently lives in Los Angeles.


Pat McNally: This series started out as self portraits. While, as you mention in your statement, the images did not stay faithful to your actual form. What was your experience of visualizing your own death and dying like?

Nikki Mull: These paintings came about years after having a conversation with one of my professors about romanticizing pain and death. At first we were talking only about the goth and emo cultures made up of mostly middle class American kids that have very little real struggle in their lives but the conversation extended to martydom in religion, socio-political assassinations, and even untimely deaths of celebrities. After his own unexpected death, I decided build on this idea and with the advice he had always given to me when I was stuck, "Start with a self-portrait."

I decided to play the parts of already romanticized versions of pain, death, murder as seen in paintings from art history. Taking photos of myself in the general poses of the characters, I had a huge range of emotions. "Samson Blinded" made me laugh because of how ridiculous I felt blindfolded and half naked stumbling around. "Cato Tearing out His Entrails" made me feel sick. "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe" was one of the more interesting ones because Van Gogh's portrait doesn't show any blood, but the background is solid red. To me, this psychologically meant that it was the world that was full of visceral energy, pain and death not the wounded ear itself. Likewise, "The Dream Places a Hand on a Man's Shoulder" was a strange sensation to imagine this ribbon of blood floating out (or possibly into) the stomach. And now that I think about it, I don't remember feeling sad while painting any of the images.

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La Mort de Marat - Jacques-Louis David

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Death of Marat – Nikki Mull, 2009


The murder of Marat is quite a different experience than the detached curiosity of the examination in the Gross Clinic, or the blinding intensity of Cato’s suicide. Is revisiting characters from history and art history a much different experience for each character? Does each signify for you a different kind of death or relationship with death?

Yes, I tried to find a range of stories that fit within the broad outline of the theme. The easiest images to find were religious martyrs, but I went as far as selecting images that probably weren't intended to be images of blood and death. "Bed" after Rauschenberg always looked like a crime scene to me...so I snuggled in and became the victim. On the other hand, I felt like Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Necklace of Thorns" is not a portrait of a victim, but a very provocative statement by a very strong woman likening herself to Christ, using blood as a symbol of her vitality and suffering. The story behind "Cato" in which the character has been stabbed, stitched together by a surgeon and then, in his determination to die, reopens the wound and disembowels himself made it the hardest piece for me to paint.


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The Little Pastry Chef – Chaim Soutine

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The Little Pastry Cook - Nikki Mull

You see blood in the red cloth held by Soutine’s pastry chef. Is this the blood of life, of creation?

When I looked at this painting of an exhausted man wiping his hands after a long day in the hot kitchen, I thought of Soutine's other images of hanging beef carcasses. The man no longer embodied the baker but instead became the butcher, his hands dotted with red and his handkerchief soaked in bovine blood. In this light, his tired gaze became one of shock.

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Cato Tearing out His Entrails - Luca

death dying memorial arts

Cato Tearing out His Entrails – Nikki Mull

It seems to me that in your Gross Clinic, you are identifying with the doctor and not the patient. What do we need to learn or think about concerning the seemingly cold detachment from the death experience shown by your character and the doctor in the original painting?

In the "Gross Clinic," I certainly am playing the doctor, the scientist, the man who revels in his power to disrupt nature's path. You're right that there is a cold detachment from the patient who doesn't even have a face to us. I didn't even consider playing the part of the patient because he is secondary to the smug, scalpel wielding man who takes a moment to contemplate his role in another person's life and death. I went back and looked at the original painting while writing this and felt sad looking at those pitiful sock-covered feet and cloth over his face, clearly still alive but in discomfort. I don't know what to think.

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The Gross Clinic- Thomas Eakins

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The Gross Clinic - Nikki Mull

The subjects of the original paintings are mostly male. I am surprised at how different my reactions to the same content are in your pieces when the murdered Marat is a female, when the toreador is a female. Honestly, a different range of speculations and meanings come to my mind, just because of gender. I am surprised by my reaction, but I cannot deny it. Is this exploration of gender roles and assumptions an intentional part of this work, or does my reaction say more about my own biases than your intentions?

Although I wasn't trying to convey anything specific through gender, I did think about what was happening to the content of the pieces several times while working on this series. The only painting that didn't bend genders was "Portrait with Necklace of Thorns" after Frida Kahlo. "Dead Toreador" came out strange because of my insistence on keeping these vivid white socks from Manet's painting, creating kind of a school girl outfit for my version of the Toreador. Sans cape and weapons further removed it from the result of a competition where death is a possibility to a confusing incident where a girl lies dead on the ground. As for Marat, I liked the switch in gender roles because the original painting feels feminine to me: the scarf on his head, the reclined pose in the bathtub, the serenity of his face, the letter with the name of the female murderer clearly written upon it.

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The Dead Toreador - Édouard Manet

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Dead Toreador – Nikki Mull

Bright red blood is sure to trigger an immediate visceral reaction from viewers. In your statement, you explain that you are exploring the idea of blood as death and life as well, and many of your incarnations in these paintings do not seem disturbed at all by its presence. What does this ‘blood of life’ say to you as an artist, and what was your experience in visualizing yourself manifesting it?

I intentionally used a very harsh color palette to really offset the blood. However, at the same time I abstracted the blood by making it a smear that sat upon the flat surface of the canvas as opposed to following the contours of the implied forms. I did this because I am playing dress up with the wounds. I needed that detachment because I was already separated by culture, by era, by economic and social conditions from the characters who were already once removed by the romanticization of the original artist. For me, thinking about death and blood makes me aware of life. The facial expressions in most of my paintings are quiet and contemplative. The sight of blood is merely an intense reminder of the energy pumping through our bodies as we move from birth to death. This is what I meant by the last sentence of my artist statement, "Sometimes between white light and black shadows there appear sanguine incidents of red."

At the end of this process what guidance or feedback do you think your late professor would have given you? Have your ideas about the romanticism of pain and death changed at all throughout this process?


I don't think that he would have liked the paintings very much. He'd have loved the color palette, but would have felt that I was too literal in the translation of the old paintings into my own. He was all about abstraction and taking away anything that wasn't absolutely necessary. As far as my own ideas...I have a very romanticized image of his death that follows a dream that he shared with me in which he's lying on a bed looking up and the walls fold down exposing him to the night sky. It isn't, of course, the way it happened, but it's a nicer version that makes it easier for me to deal with. It's absurd, but most things are.

Thank you! To see more of this series, as well as other paintings and films by Nikki Mull, visit her web site, http://www.nikkimull.com/

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