Plants and flowers play the leading role in Chris Meulemans’ most recent works. The artist is not so much inspired by interior scenes or still lives, but rather by the way people interact with their environment and nature.
Human history and science are filled with the urge to get a grip on nature. In a sense, humans structure nature (but also time and space) in an attempt to dominate their own environment. We are rarely surprised by manipulations of crops, plants and even animals; sometimes we aren’t even aware of them. Who even stops to think that a mandarin is not indigenous, or that exotic plants, vegetables and fruits are genetically manipulated to be able to grow in our regions?
Emphasized or fragmentary grid patterns in the paintings show a discrete reference to science, to the human urge to structure and categorize, to study and therefore to control everything. In “Hacked” a grid fills the entire background, in “Concrete Garden” a part of a grid appears to be attached to something outside the image.
In earlier work, Meulemans already studied human behaviour, dealing with trauma and the genetic manipulation of animals. In her recent paintings she plays with layers and shapes. A plant is always partly recognizable, but the cloudy boundary between foreground and background, and the varying degree of abstraction, creates an alienating feeling. The works do not provide a peaceful security; they ask questions.
The plants and flowers depicted by Chris Meulemans are a vehicle to evoke the fragility of nature, but also of our daily life, of our imposed structures in an almost desperate attempt to control nature. The artist’s personal vulnerability also plays a part in this. She does not shy away from loading much of herself, of her own emotion, into the work. As artist Marina Abramović once said in an interview: “You yourself have to be vulnerable to open the hearts of the audience.”
Seemingly irreconcilable elements meet in sometimes surreal compositions. For example, a vase (with a geometric pattern) seems to dissolve into the cosmos … or are these just separate parts that merge into the vase, which will frame a plant and somewhat limit its wild power; as human manipulation all too often tends to do? On “The Entertainer” the vase does not contain real flowers, but a piece of wallpaper. “Flying Away from Heaven” also inverts foreground and background; an enigmatic pink cloud keeps the plant behind it away from our gaze. In “Eternal Enchantment”, the absence of the image is developed even further: a floral pattern is wildly swept away by an almost total abstraction.
Meulemans’ found titles, which she connects with her images in an intuitive way, further mislead the viewer. The sometimes-haphazard sentences or words are almost dissociative: they create a fresh, new distance from what we see in the work. In their absurdity they have something funny, but also disturbing: the context created by the combination of title and image is uncomfortable, unstable, like a first step in a country where you don’t speak the language or like a facial expression you can’t decipher.
“Window frames shine green and hold
terracotta flower pots
in which grow geraniums of emerald leaf
with a dull circle
into rose madder flowers”[i]
From: Paul Van Ostaijen, “Polderlandse Arkadia” (fragment)
Like a poem, Chris Meulemans’ paintings have no literal or unambiguous meaning. Just like in Paul Van Ostaijen’s poem, a look at house plants behind a window can contain a world of stories. What personalities and lives are hidden behind that green veil? For Meulemans it is crucial that the viewer feels encouraged to look at the image differently and ask questions. Behind the layers of paint and the almost perfectly confusing balance between recognizable figurative elements and abstract techniques, a door to the imagination is opened. The work is a visual-poetic opening; the start of a sentence, the beginning of a story that the viewer can continue as they see fit.
[i] Author’s own translation from Dutch to English. There is no published English translation for this poem by Paul Van Ostaijen.
Tamara Beheydt, March 2021