Alchemy Expressed in Art
Conrad Mc Callum
Looking around Mark Mullin's studio below Harcourt House Gallery, one finds traces of science, religion and magic. That, says Mullin, is the purpose behind his dual solo exhibition of new paintings: a return to a kind of "alchemy" practised by medieval people.
The exhibitis seek to recapture the mystery and promise of alchemy, which regarded science, religion and magic as deeply interconnected, while looking inward at the cryptic figures in the imagination.
Alchemy 1: Tracking the Imaginal had its gala opening last week and Alchemy II: Traces of Magic opens Aug. 3 at the Fringe Gallery. The Edmonton artist also has a number of billboard paintings in various downtown locations.
Catalysts for Mullin's art-alchemy range from ancient alchemical writings to Dr. Suess; a strange mix. Him method is a lot like alchemy, which was "a mgical union of separate things, all working for the same ends". In medieval times, alchemy went far beyond the possibility of transforming lead to gold; it offered an exciting path to the inexplicable, promising chemical cures for diseases and youth-restoring elixirs.
The artist1s Memorial to Owen Warland, Artist of the Beuatiful shows a vessel billowing out smoke, as though at the end of a faild experiement. The name in the title is taken from a Nathaniel Hawthorne character who attempts "to recreate the harmony of nature in the form of an artificial butterfly".
The butterfly turns up in Mullin1s paintings as a symbol of perfectly-realized transmutation, a natural alchemy. In one painting, a First World War fighter - the human "improvement" upon nature - soars menacingly alongside the butterfly.
At the point where scientific "transformation" goes awry, "you realize you live in the shadow of your experiement", says Mullin. "At some point you step back and realize you1re not in control of your world."
Traces of scientific experiements recur in Mullin's paintings: egg-shaped vessels, mixing bowls, enveloping grids. But the shapes seem to straddle the vegetable and mechanical worlds. The smoky vessels suggest parts of chemical experiement - sometimes analogous to bombs - but they also suggest the shape and strains of a human heart. The grids could be mathematical, but instead twist and bend like nests or spider webs.
In one work subtitled Oh the Places You1ll Go, Mullin painted a Dr. Seuss character gazing at the pipe-like stems exploding into the sky. One stem "wavers in between the organically animated and the rigidly man-made", demonstrating the possibilities, and the choice, for the traveller.
"As alchemy is art wrapped in science, I1m interested in taking dissimilar things and putting them together." Forcing the inorganic and the organic together, Mullin hopes to provoke questions from the viewer.
"I don't have the answers, but I've left a few clues."
By: Conrad Mc Callum
1996 SEE Magazine, August