July 17, 1995 12:00 PM

by Martin Mull

For a certain kind of actor, the kind who likes to express himself in big, bold strokes, painting is a natural sideline. Is it any surprise, for instance, that in his spare time Sylvester Stallone likes to wallop a helpless canvas with heavily loaded brushes? But Martin Mull, who plays Leon Carp, the gay restaurant co-owner on Roseanne, is not a big-strokes kind of guy. Bemused is more like it, a man capable of deadpan comic stunts like “Duelling Tubas,” his 1972 recorded parody of “Duelling Banjos,” and prone to the inspired weird-ness he brought to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night, Norman Lear’s off-kilter TV comedies of the 1970s, or to his own The History of White People in America on Cinemax.

But as it turns out, Mull is a widely exhibited painter who holds a master’s degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. In an autobiographical essay that opens his book, Mull tells us that art was his first career path until his performing opportunities accelerated, his first marriage collapsed and he drifted away from his paint box. A diagnosis of cancer (melanoma) brought him back to it with a vengeance in 1980. What followed was work in acrylics in a meticulous photo-realist style, as well as a burgeoning problem with drink, until he swore off alcohol and moved on to the radically simplified paintings that make up most of this book.

Inspired partly by the Outsider Art of the mentally ill and other unschooled painters, Mull’s work looks a bit like the cryptic drawings of children. He believes they spring from his subconscious, which we had always pictured as a more interesting place, or at least not one filled mostly with wan figures and crudely brushed scenes. For anybody curious about what’s bubbling beneath that placid surface of his, this book has its charms, but “Duelling Tubas” is still funnier. (Journey Editions, Charles E. Tuttle, $45)

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