For his second solo show at Unit London, the acclaimed Belgian artist, Johan Van Mullem, presents a sensational body of work in his signature fluid and atmospheric style.
Guest curated by Christian Levett, Reverence expresses Johan’s remarkable ability to channel his subconscious and to capture the essence of humanity in depictions that are at once abstract and recognisable – “I think there is a link between anybody and anything, and that is what I call the collective conscious. Even if there are different cultures and different periods in life, voila – it is all the same.”
Johan Van Mullem painting in his studio, 2019 | Lucy Emms
Johan’s artworks inexplicably shift between figuration and abstraction, simultaneously revealing and disguising familiar features within the depths of his cool and earthy tones. His paintings and drawings excite a primordial, almost spiritual aura, aptly articulating what Johan defines as the collective conscious, a force that unites us all: ‘I really believe that we are all made on the same base…we are not conscious about the fact that we are breathing, that our heart is beating, that means the most important part of life is something that we don’t control.”
Johan and Christian met almost a decade ago during the artist’s first solo show in London and have since maintained a relationship of mutual respect and adoration – Johan as the creator and Christian the collector – or in Johan’s words, “really someone living in the artwork, for the artwork.” Christian has keenly followed Johan’s progression and offers a unique perspective on the art historical context present in his works. It is this relationship as Johan describes, “between someone who looks to art and someone who is practising,” which makes Reverence so powerful.
Together they titled the exhibition, Reverence, which encapsulates the emotive relationship and devotion that Johan holds for both his artistic practice and for the works themselves. Johan has a need for expression on canvas. His works are never programmed or planned, instead they come from an inner desire to communicate the seemingly incommunicable: “Physically I can feel that my painting is finished before I start … if I look at it 10 years later it’s same emotion, because I think everything is emotion, it’s energy, energy transformed in emotion. There is nothing rational or intelligent – I mean the intelligence is the way the things are put together without doing anything.”
Johan Van Mullem working on Reverence (2019), the 11-metre drawing in his studio, 2019 | Lucy Emms
Johan recalls his strong urge to create from an early age, a practice both his father and grandfather pursued, “I just want to paint because it’s the way I feel the things…I saw my father painting, I saw my grandfather painting, … and I felt that’s what I wanted to do.” He adds, “I think there is a fundamental difference between the drawings and the paintings. The drawings are where I come from,” a reality reflected in his pencil and blue pen drawings which intimate a Rembrandt-esque quality, as well as his self-devised method of applying etching ink and white spirit to his canvases – almost as an ode to his early etching work. Yet, Johan declares that “Painting is what I wanted to do but drawing was easy, painting was difficult. Drawing was possible and authorised, painting was not authorised,” a detail hard to believe when looking at the masterful drawings included in Reverence, especially the monumental 11-metre pencil drawing Reverence (2019).
For the first time, as part of Reverence, Johan has titled his artworks. “That’s a very important step because it gives an identity … I think it’s very important to have a name otherwise it’s nobody – it’s nobody, nowhere.” Johan concludes, “I think paintings are mirrors, are windows, are doors for people to their own emotions.”
The eagerly awaited Reverence will be on display at Unit London from 29 March – 13 April 2019, exhibiting Van Mullem’s monumental, emotive works.