NIGEL MULLINS: The Time Keepers
Oct 6 – Oct 27, 2021
Everard Read Cape Town is pleased to present The Time Keepers, a solo exhibition by Nigel Mullins.
In the midst of a global pandemic, I began this body of work as a way of processing our new life in France, after leaving South Africa. I found the initial spark of inspiration in the bas reliefs located in the ancient Romanesque churches from our area around Saint-Generoux. In many ways I thought that the world in 2020 was very similar to the world depicted in these corroded carvings from the Middle Ages; their brutal energy seemed to reflect the uncertainty and the absurdities of living through such widespread precarity. I coined the phrase “le nouveau medieval” to define this perception and as a vehicle for thinking about this new body of works. Under this idea I began to look at sculptural artefacts scattered through time and place as embodiments of human aspirations and I started thinking of them as time keepers.
Sculptural artefacts are very often the only thing left behind from past civilisations. Extant ancient artefacts were made from durable materials – stone, terracotta, marble, bronze, to name a few – partly in order to combat the passage of time. This durability is intended to give permanence to ideas, beliefs and power, but these items are now perhaps only curios – broken, of uncertain provenance, having lost their powerful meanings and immediacy. They are time keepers in that they both represent a time in history and store the time that has passed since their creation. My paintings here are rough representations of some of these objects. They depict artefacts from all over largely western history which are carried forward into a new context with new meanings. The paintings of sculptural objects are collectively titled The Time Keepers, and this is the title of the body of work as a whole which includes The Time Keepers and the Colour Works.
The 2019 fire that damaged the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris drew my attention to the building’s massive rose windows and reminded me of colour’s power to activate emotions. I see the abstracted Colour Works on this show (Consolation 1 and Votive from Notre Dame 1 and 2) as consoling and energizing structures to hold The Time Keepers. They complete the body of work, which I feel acts as a contemporary shrine to which we can bring our anxieties and aspirations. My ambition is that we can aim to understand them in relation to the feelings and hopes of the many others whose lives and contexts are scattered through time.
Early on in the process of making this exhibition I committed to bringing these two strands of thought and painterly style together. I felt that the muscularity and unconventionality of this juxtaposition outweighed any potential aesthetic disharmony. The clarity of this structure obscures the sometimes absurd and labyrinthine struggle that I subject myself to in selecting content and bringing often disparate images together. I work with note books filled with a tumult of short verbal descriptions of ideas and visual possibilities. These ideas spawn Google searches for images and searches for historical contexts and meanings which in their turn generate multiple avenues or research; my instinctive compulsion being always to avoid too much narrowing down in my explorations. The result is always to find myself lost in the bewildering web of human history with all its absurdity and convolutions.
I am aware that my position at this point as a practitioner and creator is both privileged and emotionally precarious. I am free to be fascinated by any aspect of human history, to follow leads and delve into the unexpected, but this also induces panic and vertigo as I try to find some order or thread that makes some sense. I return to my note books and try to locate myself in history with mind maps covering all possible links between subjects, noting points of importance, dead ends, clusters and possible new avenues. This process includes multiple thumbnail sketches, title and slogan writing and hours spent on thesaurus and dictionary. If you were to look through one of my note books you would see that the whole book is a chaotic mind map, containing diagrams, lists of words, short texts, notes to refer to pages ahead or pages back or even other note books, sequential and non-sequential thinking. You would also see how a few short phrases or small thumbnail drawings in ballpoint have blinked into existence as finished oil paintings. These images that I eventually choose act as beacons guiding me through to the next image and the next.
The Time Keepers are thus still points of connection to our history that allow me to break through the chaos and to think, to feel and to locate. The relief and pleasure at knowing that I have chosen something to paint is enormous. This image has to be a guide through complexity, but also has to reflect this complexity. It should not explain away, but be a vehicle to integrate and reconcile our inchoate internal drives and aspirations with our place in history. It is at this point that I face the question of how to approach the painting itself.
Take for example, Nike of Samothrace, after the Nike of Samothrace, c 200 - 190 BC, 2021, oil on canvas, 160 x 120 cm.
When I started this work, I knew that the painting had to recognisably represent the original. I would wish the viewer to recognise the Nike and think both of its ancient genesis and its new context in contemporary culture. In addition, the painting should not reduce the Nike to a flat historical signifier but had to re-embody at least some of its emotive power. Every mark that I made on the canvas involved a tension between describing the object and breaking it down into something new. If I was too cautious the painting would have become predictable and dull, and if I was too haphazard the work would lose the form and the allure of the original artefact. For me the precise dividing line between these modes is intuited and evolves through constant risk taking and critical review. This painting process is not therapeutic, but risky, unstable, instinctive. It demands both high aspiration and acceptance of my human limitations. The result is a recognisable but battered version of the original which reflects the messy and convoluted nature of human progress.
- Nigel Mullins
*Face masks are required and must be worn at all times when visiting the gallery
Installation images by Michael Hall