In undergrad, in an attempt to fulfill a Psychology 101 requirement and make $20, I participated in a study that required twenty minutes of clicking through slides of trees, skies, food, landscapes, and noting in which images I could see a face. The concluding debrief revealed the researchers’ prevailing theory: that those with a tendency to see faces in the inanimate were more likely to believe in God. What does it say of our nature when we see topographies of land, or our own biologies, in abstracted scenes of layered oils? In her current exhibition at The Warehouse, Los Angeles painter Lucy Bull pushes viewers to confront their tendencies to animise fields of colors and textures.
One must weave their way through the concurrent showing (aptly named Room by Room) of the Rachofsky family’s collection before arriving at Bull’s Nacar, which is tucked into two connected galleries at the venue’s far end. While Room by Room offers a curated spectrum of paintings, sculptures, and installation works from the collection, entering into Bull’s galleries is a decisive shift into a separate viewing experience. The six works of Nacar are spread across two rooms, allowing for a sense of breath between each. This balance of space seems to serve the paintings, each a cacophony of stimuli all their own.
The viewer is immediately drawn to 13:35, a massive oil on linen; it is loud against the soft natural light drenching the room. Here is where a certain inadvertent investigation begins. Bull employs such varied techniques of wielding paint that there is quite literally a sort of surface-level discovery of feathering — or is it sponging, or is it wild brushwork, that evokes motion and hard stops and erratic directionality. Jade greens pool into corals and navies, finding their way into a current. With this, a narrative comes alive, one of waterfalls bottoming out, of a topographic deja vu making our neurons scream, I’ve seen that before, I’ve known you before, and yet, we never feel quite sure. We must walk away, unfinished, haunted.
This phenomenon of projecting natural order repeats in the room’s companion works: 19:22, a turquoise and chartreuse forest, a rushing torrent of water molded by X-ACTO blades; 23:27, a thermal, volcanic tide pool, from late night nature documentaries, or maybe from some vermillion and indigo nightmare.
The adjoining gallery is a darker, more intimate space. The low ceiling and moody fluorescent lighting oppose the sweeping vaulted ceilings of the first room. A seven-foot-tall 13:31 beckons, its bloody hues and infecting yellows pushing against each other and igniting a scene of chaos. Abstraction gives way to a birds-eye view of a mountainous valley, with echoes of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights ringing in our eyes. A river at the mountain’s base seems on fire, with intricate brushwork gestures birthing orange from a winding blue. The top two-thirds of the canvas seems to teem with disastrous action, while the bottom third suggests a quieter scene: a field of smudged spectrum mirroring the activity above. This is a wasteland, a raised space that has seen destruction and is waiting to rise again.
On the adjoining wall, Stinger is a deep jungle, a lagoon alight by fireflies. Greens and blues and browns hum at a frequency that evokes rhythm, music heavy in the chest. On the far right of this Amazonian fever dream is a stark panel of darkened tone, as if this oil was damaged film. This is a departure from Bull’s other works in Nacar, which seem to honor a consistent palette applied wildly. In the final work of the show, 18:55, a walrus looks on from a breaking ice cap.
No. Go back.
13:55 is our sinus, our throat: speckled, wet, draining green. 19:22 holds the curves and caverns of our inner ear, an amphitheater of sound. 23:27 pulses something sexual. 13:31 threatens the power and bile of our gut. In 18:55, a spine, many spines, stretch and merge like roots of a tree. A walrus still looks on, its whiskered gaze transfixing.
What is this yearning to find answer in the abstract? To find place, to find body? Pareidolia, the propensity to assign meaning to patterns, is palpable in Nacar. If researchers of the early 2010s thought finding faces in fields and fruits was a sign of divine faith, what is Bull doing with this walrus?
Perhaps Bull had no intention of giving life to such a creature, but she is transparent about how the alchemy of her practice can also spark a familiarity of place. In an interview with Galvin Delahunty (included in the exhibition program) Bull stated, “strangely enough, while working on 13:35 it started to remind me of the Poconos in Pennsylvania…I tend to think about the Poconos often. The landscape is very green — lots of ferns, carpets of moss, untouched woods, a lake — and there’s a very particular kind of light. The blue in the lower half of the painting started to scream ‘lake’ to me, so I leaned into that association.” Just as our associative response to the abstract seems inadvertent, so does its creations: Bull begins her work with a phase of automatic painting, then leans into sections that ring important.
Bull provokes deep reflection with her Nacar works. Her cosmic colors and layered textualization offers landscapes that are both otherworldly and bodily, vague and hauntingly familiar. When one makes their way to the back pocket of The Warehouse, they should prepare to be transported, and also prepare for walruses.
Lucy Bull: Nacar is on view at The Warehouse in Dallas through November 25, 2023.