Published: December 2, 2010

504 West 22nd Street, Chelsea
Newman Popiashvili
Through Dec. 11

Gerben Mulder, a Dutch artist born in 1972, showed lush-surfaced, slightly kinky paintings of young girls on bright backgrounds for his first New York show, at this gallery in 2006. Now he’s back with large, splintering paintings of flowers sort of in vases — a big improvement.

He is doing his own version of a kind of faux-retro-Modernism-redux practiced by a wide range of northern European painters at the moment. Christoph Ruckhäberle, Thomas Zipp and Volker Hueller — all Germans — are among the very different sensibilities in this arena. While their historical loyalties tend to lean toward German Expressionism, Balthus mixed with Manzoni (weird but true), and Russian Constructivism, Mr. Mulder seems to be mining the heretofore unnoticed gap between Raoul Dufy and Jackson Pollock, which brings him, unexpectedly, into the vicinity of the American painter David Bates.

In any event, these keyed-up bouquets bristle. Each dashlike stroke — which is most often a petal or a leaf — exists separately, suspended in space, like a kind of exclamation point. The results are unquestionably lively — an explosion of paint, brushwork and cheerful flowers — and will look good above couches, although you may not necessarily want to turn your back on them. Who knows where things will land?

Heat Strokes

A visiting artist indulges in a frenzy of desert art-making
by Margaret Regan

What do you get when you put a Dutch abstractionist in the Sonoran Desert?
If the artist is Gerben Mulder, what you get is The Tucson Work, an explosion of crayon-bright paintings that evoke everything about our dry landscape, from its dense vegetation to its spring blooms to its monsoon storms.

During a Tucson sojourn earlier this year, Mulder painted the desert in wild abstractions, conjuring night-blooming cereus and lightning bolts though an energetic shorthand of short "strokes" of color and layers and layers of paint.
Prickly flowers ("Night Bloom") and electrical storms ("Strokes") riveted Mulder the most, but he didn't neglect the local wildlife. The uplifting "Untitled (Ascending Butterflies)" paints our mariposas as a swarm of curved wings, rising upward in primary colors on canvas. "Bird (Tucson No. 21)" is a cockeyed roadrunner, suggested by a few scribbles of gold and gray on paper.

The beneficiary of an artist's residency at the Muesum of Contemporary Art Tucson, Mulder was in town from April to late June, from wildflower season to the beginning of the monsoons. The museum lent him a Harley-Davidson to cruise among the cacti, says MOCA's Anne-Marie Russell, and he went into a frenzy of art-making, creating more than 30 paintings and 60 drawings in three months.
Born in the Netherlands in 1972, Mulder normally lives in crowded New York and Rio. Tucson's wide-open spaces freed him, he says.

"The urban centers that I occupy are dense and limiting," he notes in an artist's statement. "The magical light, exquisite atmosphere and tortured extremes of the desert have altered my painting. This work is a result of that freedom."

Two of the freest paintings in his 31-piece MOCA show are the gigantic murals he painted directly on the walls of the Great Hall—an enormous space that once upon a time housed a platoon of fire trucks. (MOCA occupies a former firehouse.) Painted late in his Tucson stay, both murals celebrate Arizona's summer's storms.

"Strokes," about 15 feet wide and 10 feet high, is a magnified close-up of the tumult in a monsoon sky. The background is a velvety midnight blue, the exact color of the clouds when the storms roll in for real. Wide white bands of paint are rollered on hither and yon over the blue, and three starbursts in blue, pink and red explode across the white. Curving bands of white, yellow and red swoop below, their curling arms turning the whole paintings into a sky dance. In fact, Mulder was doing semi-realistic figurative paintings a few years ago, and these big strokes hint at human figures, narrowing the gap between his realism and abstraction."Untitled," is even bigger, maybe 30 feet wide. Its background is the white of the wall, not the blue of"Strokes," and its strokes are narrow sticks, not wide bands, tossed every which way in the whirlwind. Still, it's more or less the same scene. In the untitled mural, though, Mulder is taking the long view, seeing the storm from a great distance. He has a penchant for switching scales like this, painting a scene close up, then again from far away, as though he's zooming in and out on a digital camera. In his regular paintings, thick oils on cardboard or canvas, Mulder combines the surface marks with thick layers of paint underneath. Roberta Smith of The New York Times, reviewing a Mulder show in New York last December, aptly noted that the artist "seems to be mining the heretofore unnoticed gap between Raoul Dufy and Jackson Pollock."
In "Untitled (Tucson 2011 Series 1)," the Dufy-like surface figure is an intricate nest made of irregular linked circles in blue and white. White bars shoot out from this desert crown of thorns, and in between and below the white bands, the dense congregations of color suggest a Pollockian depth, and an infinity of space, deep within the canvas.

Closer to home, these complex layerings of lines and color remind me of Lee Friedlander, whose mid-'90s photos of the Sonoran Desert were claustrophobic views of dense thickets of plants and underbrush. In the Mulder painting "Tall Grass," for one, you can get lost in the infinity of twisting stems and blades. But where Friedlander's photos were black and white and flat, Mulder's paintings are thick and juicy and colorful. "Tall Grass," a long horizontal painting 104 inches long and 51 inches high, vibrates with bright leaf-green, yellow, red and blue.

Mulder even indulges in a little abstracted still-life, perhaps in a nod to the Dutch still life tradition of centuries past. "Still Life of Fruits (1)" is a relatively well-behaved vase of flowers. Its pink-blue and pink circles are set against strokes shooting out against a pink-gray background. In a companion piece, the fruit bowl has shattered, and the hostile, darker background is moving in on the vase's turf.

The show has as many drawings as paintings, most of them pastel, graphite and charcoal on paper. The abstracted landscape "Tucson No. 18" renders the city's big skies in a very small format—just 14 by 17 inches. It takes a long view, with bundles of scribbles clashing overhead, a few strokes of gold and green. In "Tucson No. 22," the tempestuous skyworks are closer by, and closer to the ground, where a few unruly lines stand in for the built city.

In the quickly dashed lines of "Still Life," a nice contour drawing of a late-night watering hole, one can discern a lightbulb dangling down over a bottle and a glass on a tabletop. The colors are warm—gold glowing onto brown—but something disturbing intrudes. Cheerful as many of his works are, Mulder often turns edgy, catching the unease in the wee hours—or the prickers amid the flowers.

The show does get a little repetitious. Mulder was trying out something new—the stroke language for the desert—and he understandably experiments with it again and again. Still, it's interesting to see how he worked through his Sonoran shorthand.

Mulder shows internationally, and The Tucson Work will be labeled with the city's name when the artist travels it in the future. Discussions are under way about the fate of the lightning murals painted directly onto the museum walls. For now, they preside like a fireworks display over the Playa, a summertime installation of sand and beach chairs right in the middle of the Great Hall, by the architects' collective DUST.

The hall's great windows face north, with a view of cathedral, mountains and sky. If you're lucky, as I was, you might catch Mulder's lightning paintings—flashing white, pink and lavender against that deliciously velvety blue—at the same time that a real monsoon rolls in over the Catalinas, a clear-cut case of life imitating art.
August 25th 2011

Un-still lives

Essay by Rachel Gugelberger on flower series 2010 - 2009

After a bogus jail stint prolonged by a holiday weekend and compounded by the 9th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Gerben Mulder created in rapid succession four paintings of flowers, the subject that has been his focus for several years. Sitting restlessly against a cerulean background, a vase of crudely rendered flowers is on the verge of tipping over in the first piece, Untitled 9-10-10. Long, thick lines outline the tabletop and impose a spatial pressure around an agitated composition already challenged by the limits of the pictorial frame. In Untitled 9-11-10, Mulder deconstructs the scene, eliminating the tabletop and scattering discombobulated flowers across a darker blue background that highlights their contrasting citrus hues. Flowers are gathered anew and returned to the familiarity of the still life form in Untitled 9-12-10. Yet in the following Untitled 9-13-10, all composure is lost again: Strewn in bits and pieces, his flowers now hover in blackness. This rush of output in consecutive images exhibits the relentless vacillation between representational composure and willful abandon that characterizes Mulder’s depictions of existential realms.

While Mulder’s various renditions of the flower still life can be viewed simply as records of different moments in time, each is a volatile and hyper-expressive signpost within a deeply psychological current. His current lexicon marks a deliberate break from the figure in his previous work, with each floral permutation in painting, work on paper and collage revealing the conflicted, deliberate and near-impossible attempts to break with the conventions of genre painting. Even the images furthest removed from recognizable forms harken back to some kind of emotive human figuration, transformed as they are into a portraiture of another kind: less telling and more evocative. Less realistic perhaps, but all the more imaginative.

From the purity of the Virgin Mary’s white rose to the Greek rainbow goddess Iris and the good luck chrysanthemum of Asia, the flower occupies a loaded position in our cultural image bank. They display the sheer aesthetic brilliance of nature, signal spring and new beginnings, accompany get well or congratulatory sentiments and represent sexual awakening, death and mourning. Bernie Boston’s iconic 1967 photograph Flower Power, showing a Vietnam War protester inserting carnations into the guns of military police, came to represent a generation’s ideology of passive resistance and non-violence.

Mulder’s generalized depictions (the species of his flowers are indeterminate) offer a new kind of flower -- a harbinger of unease, tension and nervous anxiety. They invoke the vibrant connections between the moody and disquieted paintings of his Dutch compatriot Vincent van Gogh, the chromatic fluidity of Henri Matisse’s interiors, Joan Mitchell’s primordial abstract expressionism and even the pop serialism of Andy Warhol. Self-described as “color lazy” (literally translated from the Dutch for “color blind”), Mulder effectively makes use of the most strikingly unnatural and uncomplimentary colors, many of which he mixes himself. Invigorating hues vary in their toxicity -- fiery orange, hot pink, fluorescent yellow and tart chartreuse -- and are girded by heavily impastoed swatches of black or white paint, awkward perspectives and pseudo-psychedelic patterns to create turbulent, unpredictable moods and a sense of boiling over.

This turbulence is further heightened by Mulder’s quasi-sculptural approach -- squeezing paint directly from the tube onto the surface, for example -- which results in topographic reliefs. The effect is most evident in his paintings, where the faces of flowers consist primarily of circles built out by layers of paint surrounded by hastily rendered perpendicular brushstrokes to create rough-hewn haloes. The vitality of these marks, drips and textured veneers produces a hypnotic intensity and rhythmic regularity that give even his most somber compositions a somewhat melancholic optimism. To be sure, there are no wilted or drooping flowers in Mulder’s botanical anthology.

Tense, tightly cropped and painted in menacing colors, Untitled 5-20-10 presents a densely composed bouquet in a vase that, seen from a slight aerial angle, appears ready for flight. Similarly, the aggressively painted and wildly colored Punk Flowers is in the process of liberation, with bursting blooms ready to escape the grip of their vase. In contrast, Mulder’s collages are spontaneous, whimsical exercises in bonsai form. Cut and pasted from art auction catalogue reproductions, these catchy snippets beckon interpretation by way of genre classification or artist recognition. Yoshitomo Nara Flower is composed of recognizable Nara characteristics (cartoonish lines, outsized children’s eyes, toy-like forms), while Malevich-El Lissitsky Flower builds geometric forms into a Suprematist-like work.

In conveying turbulence and flux, Mulder’s floral explorations reveal a genuine and tireless meditation on painting that puts forth the still life as a mirror to individual states of mind. Taken together, these vivid, animated works demonstrate a steadfast effort to impose a semblance of order upon an otherwise chaotic world. As such, the symbolic dimension of Mulder’s flowers lies not in their traditional capacity to portray the transitory nature of life, but rather the enduring character of our un-still lives.

NY October 9, 2010