Jean Pierre Müller Paintings and the Urban Experience

by Baldo Faieta

To me there is one word that describes well the work of Jean Pierre Mueller and that is: urban. Urban in a sense of a city and not a city as conceived by Corbusier futuristic vision of clean skyscrapers and superhighways, but a city grown organically and over time.

Visiting a busy street that has been there for long time you will notice old and new buildings mixed up together, new and old shops working synergistically to cater the people that pass by, people that may or may not know each other but have implicitly something in common by being in that place at that particular time. On these kinds of streets, we seem to pick up the implicit energy, the sense of togetherness that emanates from the place.

I believe Jean Pierre wants to make you feel this experience in his paintings. It is not just the landscapes he often paints can be one of these streets, but that by walking with your eyes through the canvas it seems that the details and elements do come together in a whole that gives you this urban experience as a gestalt.

Streets like these have been put together with a self-organized mechanism following probably some unwritten laws of urban evolution. There are those thousands and thousands of people that have at some point contributed to or modified a detail in the street. There are probably thousands of stories to be told, intermingled by one place. The outcome is something that cannot be done in any other way. It cannot be simplified or abstracted because you would lose the texture that makes it whole.

I think Jean Pierre is trying to capture this process with his painting. Indeed, looking at the evolution of Jean Pierre’s early compositions to more recent ones, you can see that they have gotten more complex. But, as the study of mathematical complexity can tell you, it is not good enough to overlay more elements to get more complexity. Randomness is very regular. In order to get true complexity, the elements have to interact in a particular way to have some structure, but with enough variety to have differentiation.

The elements that Jean Pierre uses in his paintings interact by telling stories through their juxtaposition and, in combination, they tell many intertwined stories within the composition, much like the intertwined stories of people within a street. But, probably also these elements are threads across compositions much like people wondering in a city connect in a hidden way its streets. This sequence of compositions resembles this process of urban evolution.

The question then arises: how is that our eye picks up this urban experience from one of Jean Pierre’s paintings as a gestalt. In the work of Semir Zeki, he shows some neurological experiments that confirm how our eye/brain seems to pick up/resonate with a Cezanne, but not with something that looks like. Zeki paints a picture of the painter as a neuroscientist that explores the innards of the brain by trying out various compositions until discovering the correct ones that trigger some structure of the brain to resonate. My conjecture is of course that Jean Pierre paintings do this and trigger our innate structures to recognize urban structure.

The subjects though, what unites often the composition in Jean Pierre’s paintings is a person: a particular person in a city. It is almost as if the main person is the intersection of all those elements telling many stories that directly relate or peripherally converge to him or her.

Bill Hillier and his work on Space Syntax come to mind. Hillier analyses urban layouts by placing lines of sight within streets and deriving graphs out of the intersection of these lines of sights. By studying these graphs and deriving what he calls their degree of integration, he uncovers particular streets and plazas that are highly integrated. These are places that people converge to even if they cannot see them directly, somehow guessing while wandering around where they are. They seem to integrate all the pathways through the urban grid so that they are close to many places people go and therefore people go often through them.

I consider that Jean Pierre's compositions of particular persons are equivalent to these urban integrated places. If you would create a graph of all those intertwined stories based on the elements that Jean Pierre uses, you probably would find that there are people that unite in some ways many of these stories, those people that are often involved in many of them in some way or that the stories converge to them. I think Jean Pierre uncovers these people whose urban realm needs to be told about and paints them in a composition that captures their effect in the urban experience.