New York

Stephen Mueller

Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Stephen Mueller’s show consisted of large abstract paintings made with a combination of acrylic paint and raw pigment. Mueller seems to fall into that category called “sensibility painting”—more or less pejoratively—by Robert Pincus-Witten. I call his painting “abstract” because it is entirely concerned with a fluid, continuous space that doesn’t depend at all on material signification. In fact, it rather depends on a denial of materiality that doesn’t quite come off. Not Seated—Not Surrounded uses translucent colors in a variety of configurations set, for the most part, at an obtuse angle to the “picture plane.” This sort of indirect frontality is modified in part by three frontal rectangles, two at the top of the painting and one that floats in the middle right. Of the two rectangles at the top of the painting, the one on the left overlaps an elongated form that runs off diagonally toward the left side of the painting, while the rectangle on the right is almost completely submerged by a serpentine stain that ends up running off the painting at the top right. The location of the third, and larger, rectangle underscores the idea of spatial ambiguity proposed by the first two, in that it is almost buried by surrounding visual incident, and thereby forced “back” farther than they, without establishing a specific limit to the recessive space of the painting. Mueller’s color is at once artificial—as opposed to naturalistic—and atmospheric, and this last property reinforces the loose equivalent for drawing—i.e., the edges of marks as well as lines themselves—that he uses. But it cannot reinforce it sufficiently. Mueller’s painting, like that of other painters to whom he might be compared, provokes the comment that complexity alone is not enough; at the center there may still be a void looking for a subject.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe