At the centre of the deep space is an immense drawing ‘Reverence’, 11 metres long and 2.7 metres tall, covered in many different figures and parts of figures like those preparatory drawings by the great masters such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, the last having a national and cultural link with the Belgian artist. These figures, however, have different atmospherics, being moody and sinister, where accurate anatomical precision has given way to a look into the dark and often-troubled souls of the figures themselves, which acts as a prelude to the paintings around the white walls of the gallery space beyond in which there are remains of another world, the previous life for the building, with its exposed brickwork and concrete ceiling, the shape of former staircases and circular windows and an old traditional rooflight through which light floods down into one corner of the gallery, leaving the rest in comparative gloom, while viewers below can glimpse upwards through the transparent panel that joins the two floors of the gallery together.
‘Reverence’ is both the title of the immense drawing and of the exhibition by the Belgian artist Johan van Mullem (born 1959), curated by Christian Levett, at Unit London with his work focussed on what he describes as ‘collective consciousness’ of bringing people and things together at a dark time in our society when so many political forces seem to be striving towards extremes and splitting our society apart apart. The light flowing through the rooflight brings optimism and hope for a new world, which is reflected in the titles of van Mullen’s work including ‘Veneration’, ‘Heritage’, ‘Resurrection’ and ‘Rebirth’.
His work seems to reflect different influences linked to his youth when he travelled with his parents who were in the Belgian diplomatic service, much of it in Africa, which may explain why it is so deep, dark and spiritual. Strangely, he apparently studied architecture at university, although he had a passion for drawing from an early age.
Out of the darkness comes light…