Mir­rors to the other side

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Dr An­gela Hes­son


The state­ment, grounded in the supremacy of ef­fect over rea­son, en­cap­su­lates much of Van Mullem’s cre­ative oeu­vre, de­voted to deeply per­sonal ‘imag­ined’ por­traits and fig­ures de­rived pri­mar­ily from the artist’s own sub­con­scious. The no­tion of a por­trait in which the fea­tures are in­ten­tion­ally ob­scured is a pe­cu­liar one. That a genre con­ven­tion­ally so tied to ideas of speci­ficity and recog­nis­abil­ity should shroud the very phys­i­cal struc­tures con­ven­tion­ally per­ceived to char­ac­terise it, is in it­self rad­i­cal, be­speak­ing a pro­found sense of emo­tional as­cen­dency.

Van Mullem’s mon­u­men­tal por­traits are fluid, tran­si­tory, evoca­tive things. Ren­dered in gen­er­ously ap­plied oil-based ink on un­primed board, they re­tain a qual­ity of wet­ness, an un­canny sense that their sur­faces are in fact still shift­ing. Van Mullem re­mains pre­oc­cu­pied with the idea of move­ment and with light and shadow, and the flu­id­ity of his medium lends it­self to the ex­plo­ration of these in­her­ently tran­si­tional themes. More than this, his por­traits func­tion as med­i­ta­tions upon the psy­chol­ogy of the imag­ined sit­ter and of the artist him­self; evoca­tive glimpses into a pri­vate, in­te­rior world that a lit­eral ren­der­ing of fea­tures can­not con­vey alone.

In some works, the face of the sub­ject ap­pears to va­por­ise be­fore the viewer’s eyes, merg­ing into the dark­ened can­vas in wisps of fleshy smoke. In oth­ers, fea­tures swirl to­gether in a multi-coloured vor­tex or tor­nado, chaotic yet oddly con­tained in the resid­ual form of the head. There is a lu­mi­nous qual­ity to the por­traits, whether fo­cused in halo-like bands or pin-pricks or flood­ing the im­age in a dif­fuse glow. The drama of these ef­fects is com­pounded by the size of the por­traits. With each can­vas mea­sur­ing over a me­tre, the kalei­do­scopic faces that emerge from them are many times life-size. The de­pic­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ti­macy on a mon­u­men­tal scale has be­come some­thing of a leit­mo­tif of Van Mullem’s prac­tice; how­ever, the ef­fect is not a thing that the artist has con­sciously cal­cu­lated or con­sid­ered. He writes, “emo­tion is in­de­pen­dent of scale. A de­tail can pro­voke a storm.”

Van Mullem be­gan mak­ing por­traits as a five-year old, and the fas­ci­na­tion has re­mained. From his early black and white fig­u­ra­tive de­pic­tions of el­derly faces ren­dered in Chi­nese ink, he ar­rived at a multi-coloured, in­creas­ingly ab­stract treat­ment of his sub­jects. It is, he ex­plains, an evo­lu­tion­ary process, a com­bi­na­tion of col­lec­tive mem­o­ries and per­sonal his­tory: “There is no in­ten­tion to paint the present or the re­al­ity, there­fore I don’t need any model to be in­spired or to copy. A paint­ing is an open door to per­sonal in­tro­spec­tion. A mir­ror that shows the ‘other side’.’’ The role of mem­ory is key here, in­fused also with a pow­er­ful sense of place.

The son of Flem­ish par­ents, Van Mullem was born in Isiro in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo. His diplo­mat fa­ther was reg­u­larly re­posted, and so the fam­ily moved from coun­try to coun­try. From the age of seven to four­teen, Van Mullem lived in Tu­nisia, and he has spo­ken ex­ten­sively about the im­por­tance of this pe­riod in the for­ma­tion of his artis­tic imag­i­na­tion and prac­tice. “Since that won­der­ful time, my heart has been there. I have been for­ever torn be­tween my Flem­ish roots and that mar­vel­lous Mediter­ranean cul­ture. No other coun­try has had such an im­pact on me. It was there that I be­gan to draw, to fill my note­books, and I have never stopped.” The no­tion of com­pul­sion arises re­peat­edly in Van Mullem’s ac­counts of his work; pro­duc­ing visual man­i­fes­ta­tions of his in­ter­nal world and its ex­ter­nal in­flu­ences is, it seems, in­trin­sic to his sense of self.

Yet de­spite the artist’s early and con­tin­u­ing pas­sion for paint­ing, Van Mullem’s par­ents were not ini­tially sup­port­ive of his artis­tic am­bi­tions, be­liev­ing the ca­reer path to be too in­se­cure and in­sub­stan­tial. In ac­cor­dance with their wishes, he stud­ied to be­come an ar­chi­tect, but never ac­tu­ally prac­ticed. He de­scribes his sub­se­quent pro­fes­sional life as chaotic, mov­ing from job to job to sup­port him­self, while re­main­ing pri­vately ob­sessed with the de­sire to be­come a painter. Be­com­ing in­creas­ingly with­drawn, he be­gan to draw in se­cret with a kind of fraught pas­sion; his focus al­ways upon the face, in­creas­ingly ab­stracted and sug­ges­tive of dark emo­tional strug­gles and com­plex­i­ties.

In mood and form, his works are evoca­tive of both African and Euro­pean tra­di­tions. There are, in their shad­owy, or­ganic pig­ments and ex­pres­sive sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, echoes of the African masks which the artist en­coun­tered dur­ing his child­hood and ado­les­cence in the Congo and Tu­nisia. Equally present are the haunt­ing con­tem­pla­tions of Rem­brandt, Goya, Blake, Munch and Ba­con, whose dark med­i­ta­tions on hu­man in­te­ri­or­ity seem to pro­vide a kind of an­ces­tral trail for Van Mullem’s por­traits. Yet Van Mullem re­mains re­luc­tant to ally his works to any par­tic­u­lar move­ment, ar­tic­u­lat­ing in­stead an ideal of emo­tional ex­pres­sion in­de­pen­dent of his­tory or na­tion: “All the move­ments are dif­fer­ent ways to go to the same place. Some­where in­side of our­selves where you can dis­cover the uni­ver­sal di­men­sion.”

The por­traits are at once psy­cho­log­i­cal in their sub­jects and in­escapably cor­po­real in their sur­faces. Van Mullem’s pal­ette is con­sis­tently or­ganic, call­ing to mind pri­mor­dial soup or bod­ily fluid. The works have a sense of the pri­mae­val about them, of evo­lu­tion, and per­haps also de­gen­er­a­tion. They seem, in their ex­tra­or­di­nary, meta­mor­phic forms, to ad­dress the shift­ing na­ture of the species as well as the shift­ing psy­chol­ogy of the in­di­vid­ual. Van Mullem ac­knowl­edges this sense of broader trans­for­ma­tion, but main­tains that any for­mal ‘com­ment’ is un­in­ten­tional: “I do feel my sub­ject as some­thing uni­ver­sal and time­less. But there is no in­ten­tion in my work. It is based on en­ergy and feel­ings. There­fore I try to stop the in­ter­ven­tion of the brain.”

For an artist so com­mit­ted to spon­ta­neous ex­pres­sion, Van Mullem main­tains a sur­pris­ingly dis­ci­plined sched­ule. The morn­ing, he ex­plains, is for re­flec­tion, emails, shop­ping and pro­fes­sional ap­point­ments. He ar­rives at the studio around 1.00pm and works un­til 7.00pm. Yet while the pro­gramme is struc­tured, the cre­ative process it­self is far more vari­able. The en­ergy of the day, he says, de­ter­mines the for­mat of the work and the colours to be used. In­her­ent within his process is an elu­sive no­tion of in­spi­ra­tion, and with it that eter­nally com­plex, sub­tle ideal of mak­ing the in­tan­gi­ble tan­gi­ble, of trans­lat­ing feel­ing into solid form.

Van Mullem has re­cently com­pleted a sculp­ture pe­riod, ex­per­i­ment­ing for the first time with large three-di­men­sional works. Ex­plor­ing sim­i­lar themes of hu­man psy­chol­ogy and emo­tion, these are cre­ated in a va­ri­ety of medi­ums, in­clud­ing clay, bronze, polyester and plas­ter. It is a priv­i­lege borne of crit­i­cal suc­cess that he is now able to ex­per­i­ment so widely. Af­ter fifty years of artis­tic long­ing, he has ar­rived at a point of rel­a­tive ex­pres­sive free­dom, and his con­tin­u­ing grat­i­tude for this is pal­pa­ble.

For all of the frus­tra­tions of his youth, Van Mullem feels no re­gret about his path to artis­tic achieve­ment, ex­plain­ing, “It’s a long and dif­fi­cult way, but when you have the chance to ‘ac­com­plish’ your­self, you un­der­stand that every­thing you went through was nec­es­sary. I un­der­stand it is not the way which is dif­fi­cult, but the dif­fi­culty that is the way.”

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