It was the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who suggested that ‘the soul never thinks without a picture’, but how might we picture the soul itself? Looking inside the body is an easy endeavour made possible by X-rays to MRI scans that perceive shape, volume and processes beneath the surface of things. But despite this technology of imaging, seeing the soul or indeed the essence of a person always remains elusive – even more so in an age where our identities are judged by carefully self-edited digital images on social media streams.
At first glance some of Johan van Mullem’s works even resemble this type of machinic seeing inside the body. Inky pools of colour conjure up sonographic or thermal imaging and suggest movement, process, flow, in short the animation of something. Some resemble nebulous vapours, others cross-sections of jewel-coloured geological specimens. In this they perhaps first bring our attention to the elemental matter that all bodies derive from. Often faces emerge from these lithic clouds, not fully distinct, but more half- perceived, like when looking at the surface of the moon, or finding a face in the knotted bark of a tree trunk.
Van Mullem stresses the automatic process of creating these works, they are images that are built up from layering oil-based ink onto un-primed boards and he insists that there is no starting point, and no known individual subject, which makes the works firmly reject any categorisation as portraits. Instead, finding faces is what we do as humans, to naturalise and make sense of the things that we behold. It even has a name, which is pareidolia. And this impulse to see faces in inanimate patterns is a way of processing what we perceive, but might not have the faculty to fully understand, such as the enigmatic workings of the human soul.
In this collection of works entitled ‘De Anima’, van Mullem contributes to mankind’s long enquiry into trying to make sense of the inner world of the human spirit, a conundrum that has perplexed philosophers since the seventeenth-century. It was in this period that the face was thought of as a window into the workings of the soul, as an external surface that registered the inner motions of consciousness and sensations, from pain to joy. But this collection reveals that it is not only faces that provide entry points to an abstract other world of the spirit flow – other works suggest highly expressionistic landscapes of colour and light, inspired by the artist’s childhood in Tunisia. As a collection they resonate in beautiful chaotic force fields mirroring the elemental chaos and flow of time that we emerge from, that takes shape as much in human and spirit form as it does in landscapes.
Van Mullem’s work often invites comparison to past artists who explored the psychological intensity of the human condition through their painterly studies of faces, for example, Goya and Rembrandt. But this again might reflect an impulse to pin these works down into a system, through references to an art historical canon. Better, and more destabilising perhaps to embrace what these works offer, which is an exploration of the chaotic, unfathomable beauty and darkness beneath the surface of the individual and the world. While we might seek a certain calmness in establishing order in the messy personal web of our own interior sense of self, these images prompt us to consider the emotional world within the body that cannot be formally voiced, and where structured language fails to express.