Painting with the Third Eye
2022, Nanda Janssen, Paris Fa in Hunt for Paradise
As my eye roams across the paintings of Marc Mulders, it seems as though reality has melted and resulted in colors. For years now he has been painting the afterimage of his paradisal flower garden in the Brabant countryside. Just look at the series on the night garden, called Nocturnes, or at the daylight variants of this that have idyllic titles such as Forest Floor, The Enchanted Garden, Persian Garden, Walk Me Out in the Morning Dew, Flowering and Let the Desert Bloom. As is the case with a variety of other artists, flowers and plants are the prelude to existence for Marc Mulders. In the abstract patterns of the Nocturnes, for instance, there are also things other than flowers to be discerned: from atoms or cells to entire galaxies or the universe. From the infinitely small to the infinitely vast. The connection of man, nature and the cosmos – that’s the concern of this provider of light.
The connection of man, nature and the cosmos
All sorts of associations tumble about when I wander in his paintings. The words of Piet Mondrian come to mind: “It is all one great unity.” Furthermore I envisage the enchanting floral panels of Odilon Redon, whose supernatural portrayal of nature served as a gate to the non-sensory world. According to Hilma af Klint, painter and medium, her metaphysical paintings served that purpose too. And Frantisek Kupka once said: “Nature exists not for the artist to copy; rather nature is his model for fathoming a universal cosmic order.” At the same time Spinoza comes into the picture: he said that nature is God. That is to say, the universe, nature and God are identical. In addition to this, the French philosopher Michel Foucault made the wonderful statement: “The garden is the smallest parcel in the world as well as its totality: a microcosm in which biological, sculptural and political processes take place. A place of resistance and dissent.” All of this converges in the world of Marc Mulders. “In these times there can’t be enough focus on the cosmos, mystery and the enigma,” he once remarked.
It is known that, in his practice, painting and gardening go hand in hand. Claude Monet, the gardener/artist par excellence, has been a great influence. Monet imported exotic plants such as the water lily, had greenhouses built (very high-tech for that time) and possessed an astounding knowledge of botany. “Perhaps I owe having become a painter to flowers,” is one famous quote. Marc Mulders prefers to let a gardener do the heavy work. He isn’t familiar with the names of plants, nor do they interest him. He likes to see himself as ‘God’s gardener’, tending paradise as he hoes away. For it must be clear that his garden is a metaphor for paradise, creation, the earth. The patch of grass that we’ve been given in life must be cared for, protected and cherished. The world is in conflict and we need fairytales to counteract this: that’s his motto. This is no escapism but an antidote. And a form of resistance, as Foucault would put it.
The ancestral fellow artist as talisman
He does not do this alone. Attesting to that are the fascinating self-portraits in which Marc Mulders poses with every freshly produced painting in the studio. In those photographs you frequently see one or more books smeared and completely caked with paint: books about art from various ages, religions and cultures, such as Mughal Paintings, Islamic Art, Indian Painting, Die Tunisreise 1914 (among the authors, Paul Klee), Medieval Islamic Maps, Book of Beasts - The Bestiary in the Medieval World, Persian Painting, Ceramics of Iran and Indian Paradise Gardens. Although you may try, you won’t find any resemblance between that art and his. No motif has been copied; no composition, style or range of colors has been adopted. By way of those books, Marc Mulders surrounds himself with his ancestral counterparts, and he nourishes himself with their energy, attitudes and ideas. As talismen they look over his shoulder, give him strength and guide his hand. Those photographs are among the most intriguing self-portraits of an artist that I’ve seen, while their full potential hasn’t even been used. In them the commitment of this flower painter is voiced. Marc Mulders is no painter of anecdotes, who exposes wrongs, but he does have the desire to speak out and take part in the discussion. Consider, too, this artistic monk’s relative seclusion; he rarely leaves his studio. Those self-portraits are an ideal means of communication. Sometimes he appears in them as a romantic soul, then as a fighter, a missionary, a rebel, a gardener, a jester, a guerilla or as his neutral self. At other times he hides behind masks of paper or flowers; he also uses the covers of those books as masks. These ‘messages’, posted on his website and Instagram account, shed light on all sorts of aspects of his artistic practice which might otherwise be overlooked.
The thrilling frivolity of nature
The garden has increasingly become not just the subject of his paintings, but a vehicle for arriving at a certain mental state. Actually, Marc Mulders no longer needs those flowers at all: after fourteen years of gardening on this country estate, the motif has been completely internalized. He verges on detachment. As an eighteen-year-old he took a course in Zen Buddhism, to no avail. It did nothing for him. Since then, it looks as though this Christian has ultimately managed to become a Zen Buddhist. After an entire day of hoeing, photographing fluttering butterflies and observing bees buzzing from one flower to another, the impressions flow onto the canvas the following day. The paintings are produced with intense concentration and a fair degree of obsession. The studio silently attests to this process, similar to action painting; paint is rapidly struck onto the canvas in wild strokes. In fact, some works take shape in a half hour! Absolutely everything is caked with paint. That is to say, grey paint, since all of the colors have blended together. So the contemplation of nature is followed by paint combat. The floor has been pelted and the painter’s easels completely encrusted with it, not to mention the stained red rubber gloves and sticky tubes.
Every gardener knows that nature is sensual and sometimes unabashedly erotic. You need only to open your senses to it. The sensual forms of flowers, flower buds ready to burst, the fragile petals of a peony or poppy, the tactile quality of everything, pollen whirling about, seeds scattering, sticky resin seeping from bark, rooting around in the soil, everything that meanders and crawls in it, the frenzy of color, intoxicating scents, stalks of grass swaying with the breeze and blossoms that ‘snow’ once touched by wind. Nature sings with a thrilling frivolity, a champagne-like scintillating feeling that makes everything shine and expresses the forces of life. That sensory experience and temptation, as well as the erotic undercurrent of nature, have not escaped Marc Mulders’s notice. Such sensuality has crept into the paint and its application, in the voluptuous brushstroke. Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers are interpreted, almost to the point of tiresomeness, as vulvas, while she herself insisted that they are simply flowers. The sensual undertone in the canvases of Marc Mulders could be a bit more emphasized, however. In order to let these works speak to us, no intellectual leaps and bounds are required, only an openness to emotion.
Dancing colors and pirouettes of paint
Aside from flowers, could oil paint also be flowing in his veins? With an oil paint ‘beast’ like Marc Mulders, who lives and breathes it, that wouldn’t surprise me. Even his wifi password is ‘oil paint’. Weeks after the studio visit, there is still paint on my shoes. His series of Nocturnes is, in all its seductive impasto quality (lushness of paint), a celebration of oil paint. The brush glides across the canvas in supple, quick movements as it mixes the colors it runs into, resulting in a greyish green main color that looks considerably darker, almost black, from a distance. He has painted wet into wet, to speak of the erotic; the sound of it can practically still be heard. Little islands of paint in contrasting blue, orange, bright yellow or white stand out slightly in terms of height and give relief to the composition. Some colors have a marbled effect because the brush picked up multiple shades along the way, or because the paint has been mixed with colored turpentine which causes, among other things, a reddish haze to appear on a yellow stroke. The greenish grey brushstroke continues to a subsequent ‘ornamental bit’, as Marc Mulders calls the little islands of paint. As in the changing colors of a ‘jawbreaker’, there is a certain element of surprise in the paint: we never know what hue will emerge from the surrounding, sloshing sea of grey/green ripples.
The decorative loops that weave everything together are done with fan brushes from which Marc Mulders removes the hairs at the center. The effect that they create gives me a Vincent-van-Gogh-Starry-Night feeling. Flat areas scraped away with a palette knife serve as little breathers in the painting. The process of painting has given rise to a decorative allover pattern of dancing colors and pirouettes of paint. There is no subject or background, no figure and ground; it is rather one vast paint surface in which there is no hierarchy or distinction in value. Nor is there a top or a bottom, a left or right. Despite this, he does follow his creed: “A painting must have architecture, that is to say structure. There need to be coulisses in a painting, hidden places and paths leading the eye astray.” These works moreover have a wonderfully fluid strength, which I experience with the daylight series as well. Even though the paint has long since dried, the sensation of movement and dynamics remains completely intact. Everything is interconnected in flowing movements in these canvases. All of the fragments also dissolve pictorially, in accordance with his vision of the cosmos, into one vast whole.
The ethereal world of Helen Frankenthaler
Even so, not everything he produces has this impasto quality. A number of flowery abstract paintings tend, for instance, toward the ethereal world of Helen Frankenthaler. With canvases such as Walk me Out in the Morning Dew, Persian Garden and Garden Scene the background has been developed with thinly applied, whimsical areas of color. The pastel tones have been highly diluted with turpentine, leaving behind a trail of little streams, rivers and rings in the paint. Placed on top of this is a stroke alternating between staccato marks and exuberant flourishes, a kind of scattering of petals. At a certain point this former ‘matter painter’ sensed that it was time for less earthliness and more light. Here light is conceived in terms of color, weight and spirit. And that is precisely where Helen Frankenthaler comes in. During the 1950s this painter made her debut with her unique ‘soak stain’ technique, related to the dying of cloth. Oil paint greatly thinned with turpentine was poured over the painter’s canvas lying on the floor. This method guarantees a watery, fluid effect. The colors acquired added intensity due to Frankenthaler’s use of untreated linen, into which the paint was thoroughly absorbed. Furthermore she left parts of the canvas bare. The brushstroke is completely absent, since the paint has been poured. This transparent way of working, in which matter evaporates, was used by Helen Frankenthaler in order to conjure forth – there we have it again – an afterimage: “I had the landscape in my arms as I painted it. I had the landscape in my mind and shoulder and wrist.” This resonates with the very approach taken by Marc Mulders.
The series Hunt for Paradise and canvases such as Dark Waters and The Four Horsemen seem to take a different course. Here he follows the strategy of dissonance. The background is composed of organic forms in pastel colors, like floral auras, and the foreground consists of wildly painted impasto strokes in black and other dark hues, along with scrawls and spatters of paint. Even without a familiarity with the pretext for these paintings – the dumping of contaminated soil on the protected rural estate where Marc Mulders lives – the contrast between the gentle underlying layer and the menacing upper layer is palpable. The struggle between light and dark, good and evil, life and death are age-old themes. In the imagination the black stains transform into figures or even, relating the Catholic background of Marc Mulders to the title, into the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Or, to make an association with other personifications of evil, the Nazgûl from Lord of the Rings and Darth Vader from Star Wars.
It is almost sloppily painted, verging on the filthy. “You may, can, should paint wildly, rub away, smear and paint crudely, but ultimately a melody has to arise for the world is already messy and ugly,” I once heard him say. In these works he sails remarkably close to the wind and things become quite atonal. At sixty-three, with forty years of painting experience, Marc Mulders is entering an exciting phase. Some artists produce their best work at a later age. Throughout art history there are various examples of older painters who arrive at a point in their careers/health where a certain laissez-faire begins to emerge. The work of eighty-five-year-old David Hockney is looking more and more free, effortless, unpretentious and fun. Even clumsy results are engaging. The older Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian painted, as the years progressed, increasingly nonchalantly and even more abstractly. The same can be said about Monet, who had cataracts later in life and was consequently no longer able to see colors and textures very well. His limited eyesight intensified his obsession with color. Precisely in this period he painted his famous water lilies. Fortunately, Marc Mulders is already painting with his third eye.
Painting as a ritual act
Characteristic of Marc Mulders’s painterly production is that, in addition to individual paintings, he works on longterm series. Since 2016 about twenty-five Nocturnes have come from his hands, since 2012 roughly forty of the lighter flower-meadow paintings and about twenty Hunt for Paradise works since 2020. Although various painters work in series, this often involves smaller numbers of works made during a shorter period, say within a season or a year. Not with Marc Mulders. Being focused on the modernist dogmas of originality and innovation for a long time, I associated series with stagnation, a lack of ideas or the exploitation of a hit. Marc Mulders defends himself against people like me by bringing up the values of craft and tradition and by pointing to Monet, who painted about thirty versions of the cathedral in Rouen as well as the haystack, or to Vincent van Gogh, who made three versions of every canvas – one for the buyer, one for his brother and one for himself. We’ve now heard that story. An entirely different take on this can be seen with the Date Paintings (1966-2013) of On Kawara: paintings on which only the date of production has been painted, in white on a solid black, grey, blue or red background. Over the course of forty years, On Kawara would make over three thousand of these. (So Marc Mulders has his work cut out for him.) With each painting he was actually saying ‘I am alive’; and with every work that On Kawara produced, this monument to existence grew. That element can also be found with Marc Mulders. However, the ultimate reason for working in series must, in my view, be sought in the vicinity of the ritual. Rituals exist by way of repetition. The act of painting the same motif over and again, and fathoming as well as controlling that meticulously, opens the way to a ritual act. The making of each painting is a ritual in which focus is placed on life and gratitude for existence is expressed. Moreover a ritual that (knowing Marc Mulders) wards off evil and lets love flow.
With a certain amount of bravura Marc Mulders is always asserting that he works in the idiom of abstract impressionism. This unofficial term is used in jest as a contraction of abstract expressionism (roughly put, the pure painting of wild brushstrokes which is about no more than paint on canvas) and impressionism, which focuses on capturing the ephemeral moment and light. Two art movements which, in terms of time, method and outlook, are far removed from each other. Although the late work of Monet could actually pass as abstract expressionism, but no matter. And to give credit where credit is due, Marc Mulders snitched the term abstract impressionism from Joan Mitchell. Despite that, Marc Mulders forges his own blend of this. From abstract expressionism he has borrowed the grand painterly gesture, action painting, the allover pattern, giving priority to paint and color; his motif (nature) and focus (the moment, light) come from impressionism. For some time now there have been other (young) painters who elaborate on impressionism and bring its new verve into the twenty-first century. The abstractly floral paintings of the ‘third-eye’ painter into which Marc Mulders has transformed also enter the domain of spiritual abstraction. Transcendental nature is, after all, given free rein in them.
It should be clear that Marc Mulders is a religious person. His humanist disposition is the cork on which his oeuvre floats. Strikingly, his Christian philosophy has become increasingly unconstrained, free or rather, inclusive. It has evolved from an earthly to a cosmic approach. “To me, faith has to do with someone having lived. This can be a type of energy, a combination of people like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. In short, pure goodness. Which has become a story. Wonderful, isn’t it? I don’t mind meditating on this. So I pray – praying to me is like giving thanks, that I’m grateful and that I’m alive. And grateful that I’m able to pimp the rooms of Creation with something beautiful.”