“The Presence”by Nathan Mullins and “Hitched” by Sirena LaBurn

LaBurn, Mullins to present ‘Powers at Play’ at TASI in March

Artists Sirena LaBurn and Nathan Mullins are keenly aware of their place in the rich history of visual storytellers.

“What humans do is tell stories, is push stories forward,” Mullins said. “And it changes as time goes by. I think we both view the work we’re doing as an essential part of just what humanity is — what separates us really from animals — is storytelling. To a large extent, I think (it’s) one of the best parts of being human, for sure.”

“It’s like, where do I fit in into this history of storytellers?” LaBurn said. “It’s the idea of just trying to engage with the potential of all that’s come before you. And that makes me feel like I’m a part of a continuum of story makers. That makes me feel human. That makes me feel like, ‘Oh, this is why I’m here.’”

LaBurn and Mullins will present “Powers at Play,” an exhibition of their paintings, March 6-27, at The Art Studio, Inc.

Sirena LaBurn

The pair met at the New York Studio School in 2012 where they were both students — LaBurn earned her MFA while Mullins transferred to American University to complete his. They have stayed friends ever since. Laburn said she was drawn to Mullins because he was so much smarter than she.

“I thought I should be friends with the smartest painter in the room, that would be good for me,” she said, adding that Mullins was different from most artists, as he is not a “crazy whirlwind of personality.” 

“Nathan, is just extremely well read, very articulate, really thinking about what he’s doing,” she said. “And I find that more appealing in an artist to be like, ‘Oh, you’ve read this, you know, this, this is why you like this.’ I think that’s awesome.”

The Studio School’s interconnected spaces mean artists could feed off the creative atmosphere.

“Wandering around in and out of people’s studios, Sirena’s work always really stood out,” he said. “Also, she’s just really easy to get along with. So that that’s really helpful, too. You are talking to all these different people and you just pick up on and relate to the work in a similar way. I think that’s how we really get came together — being able to look at and think about the world in ways that meant a lot to both of us. It was always nice to just see what (she had) going on and trade ideas.”

The pair shared a Southern connection as well. Mullins is from Clarksdale, Mississippi and Laburn hails from Nederland, Texas. They shared a bond of being outsiders. 

“I’m coming in from Texas to New York, he’s coming from Mississippi, and so getting a good Margarita was something he would understand,” LaBurn said. 

Nathan Mullins

LaBurn lived in Germany from 2010 to 2018.

“Coming from Texas, you know the imagery of Texas,” LaBurn said. “I’ve traveled a lot, and when people would ask me where I was from, and I would say, ‘Texas,’ I could just see the look on their face. Texas is basically the land of John Wayne. Even though a lot of the Western movies were never even filmed in Texas — they’re in Arizona — it doesn’t matter. Half of them are taking place in Texas. There’s the myth (in) the imagery associated with Texas. 

“Coming from Beaumont, we’re so much closer to Louisiana with the swamps, culturally and landscape-wise, than we are with the west of Texas. But I just knew that when I was over in the world, people were thinking I was coming from some dry, ranching community, and I’m riding horses and shooting guns. I decided, in my graduate studies, to actually start to understand that.”

“Jubilee” by Sirena LaBurn

LaBurn, a former Art Studio tenant, interned for a while at The Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas, which specializes in Western art.

“That gave me a good background,” she said. “And I just started watching all these Western movies and started to wonder, why is this? Now I make it part of my personal mission. When I’m making paintings that feel connected to Texas, I feel like I’m trying to use that type of imagery, but not in a non-cliche way — in a fresh way that feels personal and more connected to me rather than some type of Western American mythology.”

In a similar way, Mullins said people have strong perceptions of Mississippi.

“I think (they) discount you a little bit, because the South and Mississippi is usually at the bottom of the rankings,” he said. “It’s easy to dismiss. There’s a lot of problems. We only just, this past year, got rid of the Confederate battle flag on the state flag.”

“Alas!” by Nathan Mullins

But Mississippi also has a rich tradition of storytelling and music, Mullins said.

“I grew up in Clarksdale, which is where the crossroads of (highways) 61 and 49 are, so that’s the birthplace of the blues, right? — Robert Johnson sells his soul to the devil at the crossroads,” he said. “Chicago likes to claim the blues, but it was the Mississippi Delta. And that’s where rock and roll, where all of that stuff comes from. There’s a lot of storytelling and mythologizing of these characters. I grew up in that.”

Mississippi is not known necessarily for producing many great visual artists, Mullins said, but the state’s storytelling tradition informs his work.

“A lot of my work deals with mythology and iconography,” he said. “I don’t think it necessarily sticks with Southern myths, but definitely my interest in myth came from growing up there.”

Drawing upon mythology helps his paintings have a timeless aspect, Mullins said. 

“I want it to reference specific aspects of world mythology, and I would like it to feel contemporary — but I don’t want to, at the same time, pigeonhole it in today, either,” he said. “It can sound, to my ear at least, like a pretty presumptive thing to say, that I want to create this timeless world, right? But it’s the only thing that would be worth actually creating. 

“I feel like it’s an impossible task, but it’s the trying to achieve that. That is what I hope (is) coming across in the paintings.”

“I think you’ve said that really nicely,” LaBurn said. “That’s exactly the point. If you’re going to be making art, if you’re going to try to be the person who dedicates your life to making something like paintings, if you’re not shooting for timeless, then why?

As well as classic mythology, Mullins also draws from Shakespeare plays and contemporary novelists such as David Foster Wallace, as well as song lyrics by Wilco and Modest Mouse. The show’s title is a lyric from “Anthrocene” by Nick Cave.

“As I’m creating these mythological sorts of images, I want it to communicate a story,” he said. “Obviously, I can’t do that linearly with a single still image, but by conflating different things and using the color to really express the feeling that I’m trying to get out there.

“I’d like the image to suggest a narrative, that there’s something larger going on. And, through conflation of events on the single image, to communicate enough of what that’s about. I’m not necessarily interested in (viewers) knowing, ‘Oh, this is referencing X, Y or Z, or this is from that story?’ None of that’s really interesting to me, but there’s a suggestion of something larger is going on. And how does this moment of it make me feel?”

Mullins work is characterized by vibrant colors that echoes Expressionism.

“That the color isn’t naturalistic is certainly a choice,” he said. “It’s a way to clue the viewer that this isn’t real life, that this is extra-normal territory, which is where myth lives. It is definitely referencing a lot of real-world things — there’s climate concern, and rising waters and imagery like that — but it’s important to me that it exists outside of reality, that this is OK.”

“Georgia, South Carolina II” by Nathan Mullins

Mullins cites comic book artist Grant Morrison, who views his comic books as magic spells that he creates and sends out into the world. Mullins views his own paintings much like a magic spell.

“I’m pretty fairly grounded in my life — I don’t really believe in magic,” he said. “But I think paintings are a way to access a sort of magical world, that they are things that are not normal, and they really shouldn’t be normal — that they exist in some other sort of reality. And you’re putting it out there and hoping that it affects people in an extra-normal way. 

“The choices and the color and the paintings are a reflection of that. I don’t want the viewer to come to them and say, ‘Oh, I immediately know what this is.’ I would like it to put them on a bit of an unstable grounding.”

Laburn picked up on the magical nature of art, and its ability to connect with the human narrative.

“I thought it sounded really hippie-dippie when (he) said it, but then I just like thought about standing in front of the Isenheim Altarpiece (in France), which I had the good fortune to see a few years ago — and it is a magic spell,” she said. “When you think of the work that we’ve carried with us, like all of us as artists, that totally has cast a spell on us — why it speaks to us hundreds of years later and we walk around with these images. Then, yeah, those are spells.”

Laburn’s images are richly textured, which reflects the story of the painting’s creation.

“How it happens is, I usually make 10 failed paintings underneath that one painting,” she said. “It just gets that thick, incidentally.”

“Grackle Cactus” by Sirena LaBurn

Laburn said she hasn’t used any chemical paint thinning medium since she got pregnant.

“That means I have to use (paint), basically, straight out the tube,” she said. “The reality is, like in the image with the skeletons, they literally danced all over that canvas. Then I let it dry and I paint over it, so there’s just a lot of a lot of layers.”

In this way, the painting we see is literally the end result of a narrative process — a story that has been created over time.

“That’s a nice way to think of it,” Laburn said. “A lot of what happens is, I have a really clear image. And then I try it and it’s terrible. It’s like the weakest, most cliché and I let it dry. Sometimes I hide it in the back of whatever closet I can find, then I pull out that canvas months later. (I see a) tiny little thing, or that one color — I can use that.

“A painting I just finished that has a cactus on it, I think I’ve had that panel for over three years. I was about to just throw it out. And then I was like, ‘Let’s give it one more go.’ And then it happened, and I finally found the painting — it was meant to be there.”

The pair share a love of color, and “Powers at Play” promises to be a visual feast.

“I just love color so much that I feel like to not use saturated color painting would take away part of my initial joy and connection to painting,” LaBurn said. “(It) definitely has to do with building a very specific world that’s generally very extreme. 

“Extreme color showing like extreme heat. Like the dancing skeletons. They’re always in the desert and it’s always hot as hell. The color reflects that it’s hot as hell. It’s also this very crazy, fantastical world where there’s dancey skeletons. I’m not trying to convince you that they’re actually out there dancing. It’s this fantasy side world that I’m creating, so the color has to work with that.”

The birth of LaBurn’s daughter, Maia, in 2018, has changed her work, she said.

“I would say imagery that I was never drawn to before being pregnant became powerful to me,” she said. “I think of work by like Mary Cassatt. Coming from graduate school, I would have been like, that’s just some sentimental woman holding her baby, why do I want to look at that? And now, I’m just like, she has basically the balls to actually paint this very, you know, woman’s life and what it’s really like, and put that into a painting that would last forever. 

“So, the way I engage with certain imagery like that — (imagery) I would have thought was kind of soft — now I completely love. Any painting with babies in it, I’m gonna look twice because of, you know, how hard it is to paint your baby.”

More importantly, Laburn said carrying a human being for nine months fundamentally shook her to the core and empowered her.

“That made me feel like a different human,” she said. “I felt like I connected to women who’ve been giving birth in caves — that’s just what women are, that’s what we do. I never particularly connected to that aspect of women’s femininity, really. I’ve met a lot of women who had kids, and then their work became completely secondary. And I thought, maybe that’s gonna happen to me. But the opposite happened. 

“I felt very convinced that my work actually was meaningful and was important, and I needed I needed to be the best painter I could be to show my daughter, this is your mom — and this is the life you can have. I want her to see being a working artist is a real thing. And I’ve got to be a good one, because I’ve got to do this for her.”

“Powers at Play” will be on display at The Art Studio, Inc., 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont, Texas, March 6-27. A virtual exhibition will be available at www.artstudio.org, or on The Studio’s social media pages.

Story by Andy Coughlan. First published on artstudio.org, Feb. 18, 2021

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