Christopher Mudgett | The Primal Need, The Imperative Output

Via Issue 191, Fresh Cuts

Written by

Annie Bush

Photographed by

Gene Lemuel

Styled by

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Christopher Mudgett. “Woman At The Toilet IV” (2021). Oil On Canvas. 72” X 60”. © Christopher Mudgett, 2021. Courtesy of the Artist and ESO bureau de recherches. Los Angeles, CA.

Who would deny anyone the chance to disrobe painting—layer by sumptuous layer—to see the real truth of it standing, naked and coy, at its genesis inside its artist’s brain? Who is able to deny themselves the glorious indulgence of knowing just a little bit more story, understanding just a pinch more than what is initially presented? After all, everyone loves a palimpsest. There’s an entire field dedicated to the pursuit of more significance in painting—historians and art fanatics have dedicated their lives to the hope that X-rays and corrosive substrates might peel back layers of paint to reveal something worthwhile, something that might just make a circle of meaning.

Hundreds of years from now, people will have a field day X-raying Christopher Mudgett’s paintings. Mudgett tells me so as we bathe our faces in the clear spring sunlight streaming through the great glass balcony doors of his DTLA studio. We’re enjoying the afternoon in the company of Mudgett’s close friend and curator of his newest exhibition—illustrious Hollywood photographer Gene Lemuel—as well as in the company of a good bottle of red wine. We are also in the company of a countless number of strange-looking women.

Mudgett—LA-based painter, sculptor, and printmaker—is largely known for his monochromatic, near-cubist depictions of women: women with wavy calves, squatting under moonlight; crooked women clutching phones between balloonish palms; women smiling in a triangular fashion, or staring off the canvas with an unblinking eye perched on the wide bridge of a towerlike nose. Women’s faces and bodies, boasting rotund cheeks or razorlike shoulders, painted and sketched by the thousands—yes, thousands—in shades of black and white and gray. They’re packed—bodies lying atop each other on loose leaf sketch paper—in large stacks on bookshelves that line the back of the room. There are so many women hanging out together here in Mudgett’s DTLA loft. I’m one of them.

As I perch across from the artist and Lemuel to talk about Mudgett’s newest solo exhibition, THE PISS, I keep getting distracted by the almost obscene, shocking volume of paintings, and the depth of detail to which they are created. Mudgett, a self-taught artist, pivoted his career towards visual art at the age of 28 in the wake of his mother’s death, after which he felt “a burning hunger to create.” The artist—now 41—clearly isn’t sated: Mudgett generates between 10 to 50 drawings a day (“They’re called my ‘Catch of the Day,’ he tells me, flipping through a random hundred-or-so handful of crisp white sheets he’s grabbed from the bookshelf. Many of the drawings aren’t actual women, but instead iterations of straight, sterile lines that meet each other tidily at corners and flex backward then forward to form ghostly suggestions of shapes that may or may not later crop up in paintings.) In addition to the drawings, Mudgett works across multiple canvases at a time, often revisiting old works or painting over recent works on whims he can’t quite explain.

“When I paint, the last thing I’m thinking about is painting,” he tells me. Painting, to Mudgett, is a sort of active dreaming process. He never presupposes any of his work before approaching it: “When you plan something ahead, it puts a cap on it,” he tells me. “It ruins the sanctity of the moment.” As such, Mudgett admits to filtering the kinds of media and other materials he allows into his waking consciousness. When he creates—which is nearly always—he hopes to be creating something that’s reflective of an interesting mind. “You know,” he tells me, “some people jog for fun. And some people train for the Olympics. Let me tell you, I’m not just jogging for fun.”

As such, Mudgett’s work is divorced from the physical act of painting: as much of his oeuvre is produced in his interactions with the every day as they are in front of the canvas. Mudgett’s work is imbued with a strange sense of perpetuity. Though “things live and die” on the canvases, there is a pleasant similitude between life and burial in Mudgett’s work—the membrane that would usually separate life and death, action and thought, instead encloses the two, swaddling them together in a warm, womblike enclosure, their closeness inexplicable to anyone but their creator.

Christopher Mudgett. “Woman At The Toilet III” (2021). Oil On Canvas. 72” X 60”. © Christopher Mudgett, 2021. Courtesy Of The Artist And Eso Bureau De Recherches. Los Angeles, Ca.

It is through his nebulous process of calling into being that Mudgett’s THE PISS, has arrived. THE PISS, a collection of female figures squatting over toilets, features various looks of gruesomeness and ecstasy crossing blocky expressions and Fleur De Lis of liquid urine flowing from slit-like brushstrokes. The artist tells me the series had no identifiable inception. THE PISS was the toilet paper shortage in the pandemic. THE PISS was a fleeting thought about the decline of public restrooms. THE PISS “was a woman with a pet,” Mudgett says. “I was showing a kind of interaction. And, all of a sudden, a couple weeks and repaints in, she’s sitting on a toilet. I didn’t know how I felt about it, but there was something about it that stuck with me.”

He gestures to another large work, darker, more angular. Moodier. The toilet is there again. “And then another one popped up. It just happened like that, over three years, and then I had enough to make a show. I didn’t intend for that to be the case.” There are over thirty of these paintings, so much so that there isn’t enough room in the planned ESO Bureau de Recherches exhibition space for all of them. “Obviously, this is a taboo kind of thing,” he says. “But there’s something primal in it, something constant that feels natural. People might look at these with shock, but, c’mon... How many times have you gone to the bathroom today?” he chuckles.

Gene Lemuel, curator of THE PISS—stringent vindicator of all things social media and, really, most things that come to mind when one thinks of the capital-S Scene—tells me that the galleries are dead. As is much of the art world. He prefers the salon-style gatherings of the avant-garde, the only group to which he ardently pledges his loyalty. He plans to help present THE PISS this spring in such a way that reflects this rejection of the customs within the art community. Lemuel’s outspoken affinity for the indefinable cadre of presumably roguish artists that comprise the Los Angeles avant-garde is perhaps why he believes so fervently in Mudgett, who fired his gallery representation a number of years ago in favor of being able to control his artistic output and the buyers to whom he sells. “[Mudgett] will probably be considered one of the, if not the, most prolific painters in history,” Lemuel tells me, clinking his wine glass against mine, toasting for a third time this afternoon to the avant-garde. “Quote me on this. The work speaks for itself. Long live the avant-garde. Long Live Mudgett.”

A meeker artist might shy away from such radiant praise from a widely known artist like Lemuel. Mudgett is no meek artist. Though he’s humble, he’s confident—he’s worked tirelessly for over a decade, and has no plans of slowing. “This might sound weird, but I already know what’s going to happen,” he tells me. “In life, our decisions determine what happens... I decide to dedicate my day to painting, and have for years. That’s how I’ve gotten to the place that I have.” Though he exercises humility, Mudgett intimates, his work has to be a little selfish. Selfishness in art, Lemuel and Mudgett tell me, is the purist means of communicating an undiluted truth. “Selfish art is unplacated,” Lemuel says. Mudgett nods, and lights a cigarette. “The second you think of someone else, things become so thin.”

Christopher Mudgett. “Woman At The Toilet Vii” (2021). Oil On Canvas. 72” X 60”. © Christopher Mudgett, 2021. Courtesy Of The Artist And Eso Bureau De Recherches. Los Angeles, Ca.

And, when talk of aesthetic thinness arrives at the table, so does the inevitable conversation about AI and its role in future creation. “Well, I think it’s a tool,” Mudgett says. “I’m not threatened by it, though. People need real humans to make art. Have you heard that AI Nirvana song?” He asks me. I have not. “It sounds just like Nirvana. But as a Nirvana fan, I can tell the parts of the song that have been appropriated from the real music. I don’t listen to Nirvana just because of their sound. I mostly listen to them because of the story. That’s kind of how I feel about AI art—it looks like a real artist, sure, but people are always going to want to know what’s going on behind the scenes.”

Beyond the hysteria that surrounds the world of artificial intelligence and its uncanny artistic pastiches, Mudgett thinks deeply about the schematics of appropriation and inspiration, particularly in the way that audiences perceive his own art. He’s not unaware that many compare his cubist, surrealist figures to those of Picasso, Dalí, Cézanne. He welcomes the comparisons, though he feels that any whispers of facsimile are unjust: “Whatever people think they see in my work,” he posits, “I always tell them: yes. I encourage people to draw comparisons [and] to find things they want to recognize in my work. But in the end, it’s my work. All of it.”

Mudgett, by his death, will have presumably left a body of work so robust it could fill entire museums on his own. These greedy futuristic scholars, desiring more, a fuller picture, a chewy end, might haul these works under the centuries-forward version of an X-ray out of the ever-consumptive necessity for more! more! Likely, in that beguiling process of disrobing Mudgett’s work, they’ll find that there is never anything but disrobing. Said historians will peel into entire realms sandwiched atop each other, discovering women who lived and died on the canvas— who will be dug from their oily graves, all of whom called to life without a secret to tell these gravediggers, none of them having emerged from a singular plan, instead coalesced into being and consequently put to death by the whirling miasma of Mudgett’s unconsciousness.

I ask Mudgett if his paintings—those shapely, clean extensions of a tangled consciousness—ever scare him. “Yes,” he replies immediately. He clarifies. Mudgett isn’t scared of his subjects, nor of the dark recesses of his unconscious. Rather, he’s scared of dying with unrealized excess. “I’m scared I don’t have enough time to get everything down before time’s up.” He gestures to the easel, light beaming from a wide window onto the spherical breasts of a half-finished woman. “My time is finite, and there’s so much left to work out.” 

THE PISS is on view until April 18 at ESO.bureauderecherches - Made Solid, 4855 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029.

Christopher Mudgett. “Woman At The Toilet Xxvi (2024). Oil On Canvas. 24” X 20 ”. © Christopher Mudgett, 2024. Courtesy Of The Artist And Eso Bureau De Recherches. Los Angeles, Ca.

Written by Annie Bush

Photographed by Gene Lemuel

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 191, Fresh Cuts, Christopher Mudgett, Art, Annie Bush Gene Lemuel