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|Momentum, 1998 (Association of Arts, Pretoria)
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Painting in South Africa- especially landscape painting- has a long tradition of the "picturesque" when it comes to the rendering of the topography of a country in which vast spaces predominate. Since the incursion of settlers in the Seventeenth century, the mode has been European and narrative in the sense that it documented the changing history of the country and its peoples. Early artists like Frederick I'Ons, Hugo Naude and the much copied Jan Pierneef took on the geographical grandeur of the country and established personal styles which were to dominate ensuing renditions of landscape by other artists- to the point that they became entrenched as landscape genres. Copied endlessly, these styles have ended up by being hackneyed and facile, in a sense denaturing and romanticizing the raw visual power of the real landscape which is, in essence, much more rugged, extensive and uncompromising.
In the late 1950's, at Rhodes University School of Fine Art in Grahamstown, a small town inland of the eastern seaboard of South Africa, the then incumbent professor Brian Bradshaw, recognized the potential of the landscape surrounding the town as a basis for a renaissance in South African landscape painting and also a departure point for his philosophy which was based on Royal Academic principles. The Grahamstown School, as it has subsequently become known, has produced many productive young painters whose work is founded in and extrapolated from their experience working and growing in the landscape. Nigel Mullins is a product of this tradition.
The landscape surrounding Grahamstown is subject to extreme climatic changes and in high summer is a bleached, arid place punctuated by low green black bushes. Within days, persistent misty Cape rain can change the country into a space full of mysterious brooding vistas redolent of England or Japan. Both conditions are dominated by light - harsh African sunlight and low intensity filtered light that obliterates detail and leaves the viewer with only an impression of etched hills running to the horizon. It is a landscape of texture and nuance and is particularly difficult to capture in paint, in that bush patterns and light are its sole components. It forces the artist to undergo a somewhat Zen experience of having to subjugate detail to a broader whole - the apprehension of the ethos of the landscape, if you will. It requires close observation and the ability to correlate visual incident with painterly space. Nigel Mullins is master of both. Mullins was born and educated in Grahamstown. He Graduated from the University School Of Fine Art in 1990 and completed a masters degree two years later with an exhibition of 48 predominantly landscape-based paintings. These early paintings are a straightforward exploration of the complexities of the landscape executed in vigorous, dense matrix of marks in impastoed paint. Mullins says of this work "that the inspiration and energy for my paintings arose from the physical struggle to express an emotional response to my environment". He points out that the landscape has always been, for him, a point of departure - not an anchoring factor - for the use of sensual paint. In this alone, he is heir to the modernist tradition.
In the closing years of the twentieth century, assessment of the act of applying paint to canvas must necessarily be seen in the context of "modernism". Painting itself has lost some credibility and all but disappeared in a dazzling display of innovative techniques, which have forced the viewer to confront art in radical new forms which have made art difficult, obscure and unstable. The reciprocal understanding, which was once tacit between artist and viewer, has given way to an art that is less and less accessible without guidance and direction. However, in Mullins' work the viewer is able to progress from the more literal early works to the latest works as part of a generative process. He says, " I paint from imagination and memory, but my understanding of the landscape is based on years of drawing from life. I have, however always been more concerned with disrupting my interpretation of nature in search of a psychic space". For Mullins the process involves a series of intuitive decisions on what is right and wrong in each painting. He says, "I think all paintings give off a kind of message about some aspect of the world around us. For me, painting sets up a relationship with the social and physical environment and landscape [psychic or real] provides me with the greatest visual and emotional entry into painting".
When asked about process he goes on to say " I often start with no idea of what I'm going to paint. I simply put paint down and enjoy playing with marks and techniques. Often this process provides the direction a painting will go and eventually a decision has to be made about what the subject of a painting will be. Sometimes, by chance an image is arrived at quite suddenly which may happen on top of an already labored and interesting surface. I think that technique is probably the most important factor in determining the content and in providing the visual power of the image. The surface must contain enough visual complexity and density to co-exist with the subject matter".
The introduction of figures to the background space is a recent departure. Sociological changes in recent South African history have meant, as happens everywhere in the world today, that the mark of people's intrusion into landscape spaces is becoming more and more evident. In transitional paintings, what Mullins saw as a landscape space inhabited by paint now was interpolated by single isolated figures which, once placed, achieve not only physical scale within the painting, but also serve as a metaphor for change within the society itself. Once he had become aware of the phenomenon, Mullins goes on to say, "I realized that what I was doing resonated with wider conditions within the country. South Africa has always been a restless place. Populations clash, displace, swirl and mix. The people in my landscapes are either restless, moving for undefined reasons through a clutter of bushes and hills, or passive, standing, sitting, waiting because there seems to be no alternative". As these paintings have developed, virtual landscape has become suborned to become a psychic space for figures, which are increasingly frenetic and mobile. Mullins says he derives intense pleasure from the discovery that his interest in human physical gesture and his mark making technique could be symbiotic. It provides him with scope for an endless dialogue between the reality of the recognizably human components and the total abstraction of mark making itself. He often works from casual photographs which he takes in Grahamstown's busy, vibrant and untidy town center. Mullins uses several optical devices to highlight, emphasize and delineate activity within the canvas format. The keyhole or nimbus has the extraordinary effect of not only enhancing the mark-making process but also acts as a raft for the figures themselves. These are arranged in abstract flowing designs which owe their genesis to the organic patterns in early landscapes. The "window" devise operates on somewhat the same thesis as that of American Abstract Expressionist painting in that the Physical surface of the canvas holds the sensual and tactile qualities of the paint and the "window" transmutes the psychic sensations of the canvas to another dimension behind the surface- a transcendental space.
The recent inclusion of cloud shapes occur as a visual explosion of pure paint."…something which allows me to express the passion I feel for paint" he says with a smile. Some of these shapes function like the " thought bubble" in comics. He uses both abstract and realistic imagery within the contained shape- again to promote a dimension other than what is perceived.
Mullins' use of aggressive color is both deliberate as well as intuitive. "It seems to me that my paintings demand what could be called kitschy color. It has something to do with the intensity of the painting experience and seems to be appropriate to the people and the landscape which form my subject matter". Crimson, sharp hot blues and an ochre peculiar to the Eastern Cape dominate his color palette.
In a broader context, the conceptions and innovative techniques which inform the work of individual artists are never independent of socio-cultural and political forces. One of the benefits which is derived from the birth of freedom in South Africa is the intensified interchange among its peoples. Nigel Mullins epitomizes the new breed of emerging artists from this country who have begun to explore with joy the intriguing cultural richness available to them in the flux of this new society whilst preserving and honing , on a personal level, the legacies of an endangered centuries old activity called painting.