You’ve Come a Long Way:
Jack Niven’s Universal Mule at the Ogden

If you’ve been to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in the last decade, you’ve probably seen Jack Niven’s Universal Mule, a tall, representational painting of a mule against a backdrop of stars. It’s currently hanging in the stairwell between the fourth and fifth floors, but it began its public life on Airline Highway in November of 2008 as a satellite project of the new biennial, Prospect.1.

Prospect.1 opened to high praise in the global art press. Well-known artists like Fred Tomaselli and Julie Mehretu were shown alongside local artists. Also happening in 2008: Court 13 Arts was in residence at the Colton School working on Beasts of the Southern Wild and Brad Pitt had founded the Make It Right Foundation, which was building “environmentally-friendly” homes in the hurricane-devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Such optimism would ultimately prove hollow, as evidenced in 2022 when residents of these houses claimed they were built with defective materials and had other problems. In 2008, however, the atmosphere was expectant and the New Orleans art scene felt electric. This was the setting in which Jack Niven, artist, laborer, and everyman, created his Prospect.1 satellite project, American Beauty, South.

Jack Niven moved to New Orleans from London, Ontario in 2005, two months before Hurricane Katrina. “Things were really different where I was coming from and where I was going,” the artist told me. “Everything was possible here.” After the storm, Niven returned, rebuilt, and has lived in New Orleans ever since.

For American Beauty, South, Niven invited seven artists to create painted murals on signboards which would be installed on the exterior walls of seven motels along Airline Highway. Airline Highway, where Route 61 ends (or begins), is the Lana Del Rey of local roads, with its vintage-looking faded storefronts and air of semi-tragic nostalgia. The seven murals drew inspiration from the theme American Beauty, the South, and U.S. Highway 61, a roughly 1,400-mile stretch of road from Manitoba, Canada to New Orleans. This road also holds historial lore and regional significance. It’s been said that the construction of Route 61/Airline Highway was not only a sign of modernization, but that it trimmed 40 miles from Governor Huey P. Long’s well-traveled route between Baton Rouge and the hotels and bars of New Orleans. For Jack Niven and countless others, Highway 61 is emblematic of the road that brought them to New Orleans.

Universal Mule was Jack Niven’s contribution to American Beauty, South. Made of four 4’ x 7’ boards, this painting looked down on Airline Highway from the London Lodge Motel, a call-back to the artist’s last Canadian home in London, Ontario. After Prospect.1, Niven, with his wife, artist Marianne Desmarais, gifted Universal Mule to the Ogden.

At one time, Universal Mule was installed by the elevators, on the ground floor and not possible to see from a distance. Then, the work was moved to the stairwell where it remains. Like a highway, a stairwell is a place of passage and this one is approached from a distance. I watched museum goers descend the stairs and pause in front of the painting. Most of them read the wall label, glanced up at the looming beast, and continued down the stairs. The painting is not about close visual engagement. Like most murals, its semi-gloss surface doesn’t ask for optic pleasure or scrutiny and latex is not lapis lazuli. The palette is functional, a dark sky composed of blues and blacks, a starscape made with white, yellow, and blue mostly splattered but touched up in places to make certain heavenly bodies appear to shine. The mule is rendered in a paint-by-number style, small squiggly blocks of flat color (mostly browns and yellows) that the eye mixes with distance. The painting, which resembles Trapper Keeper art, is a little goofy, like optimism itself.

Without the meaty qualities of a “painter’s painting,” I focus on the subject. What could a mule mean in a work of art? The mule is a beast of burden and, locally, a familiar obstruction to quick passage through the French Quarter. Mules are a staple of the Southern Gothic. Academic Jerry Leath Mills established himself as the expert on dead mules as they appear in 20th century American Southern literature. Mills wrote, “There is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?” Langston Hughes wrote a poem titled “Me And The Mule,” with the lines “He’s been a mule so long / He’s forgotten about his race.” Hughes also co-wrote a play titled The Mule-Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life with Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston had studied “mule-talking,” a kind of besting game in Southern Black oral tradition. The project ended Hughes and Hurston’s friendship and the play was not staged until 1991. The zoological angle is that the hybrid animal (male donkey and female horse) is bred for work and incapable of reproduction.

“What is the mule to you?” I asked Niven.

 “The everyman. And the universe is the closest I get to a spirituality or religion… I really like the notion that there’s a universe out there that provides, if you tap into it. Usually, the tapping into it is some kind of work. I feel a common bond with laborers or workers because that’s what I’ve done my whole life.”

And yet, what strikes me most about the mule, an animal habituated to work, is that it’s unburdened in the painting. It’s out of context, out of the American South, unbridled in outer space. And considering its origin, the painting is out of context at the Ogden. Universal Mule asks to be read in the totality of its life so far, like we all hope to be. This painting reminds me of the 2008 New Orleans I moved to, sight-unseen, a place in the midst of rebuilding. This painting has become part of the furniture at the Ogden, or like an old-timey relative: Great Uncle has stories to tell. But we are caught up in the present, leaning into the next great thing. The best angle from which to look at Universal Mule may not be from a highway or hallway, but in the context of its history and from the perspective of time. The mule not only symbolizes the journey of the artist who settled in New Orleans almost 20 years ago, but the journeys of everyone who has landed here to live or pass through, to get to work or lay their burdens down.

Photos: Jack Niven, Universal Mule, 2008, latex on panel
Top photo by Emily Farranto
Bottom photo courtesy Jack Niven

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