If anybody can lay authentic claim to a piece of the revived interest in Primitivism, it's veteran L.A. artist Lee Mullican. His abstract painting has derived inspiration from tribal sources ever since the '40s when he joined Wolfgang van Paalen and Gordon Onslow Ford in filtering the forms of Mexican and Amerindian art of the Southwest through Surrealism.
A current body of work makes the connection clear in paintings, bronze sculpture and ceramics. The paintings are looser versions of his familiar field compositions with almost tapestry-like surfaces. Ceramics and numerous small bronzes represent a new direction for Mullican. They acknowledge sources both in their totem-like structure and in titles like "Guardian" and "Spirit Bird."
Mullican has earned the right to be taken seriously, but his work sits on an uncomfortable borderline between cultures. It tends to be thoughtful and a little fussy, rational qualities that mix oddly with the intuitive and magical demands of primitive art. The same contradiction plagued Max Ernst and a lot of other similarly inspired artists. If you don't happen to be a natural primal personality like Picasso or a seer like Klee, your work is always going to look occasionally nervous and embarrassed. (Herbert Palmer Gallery, 802 N. La Cienega Blvd., to April 13.)