New York

Stephen Mueller

Annina Nosei Gallery

First scenario: Stephen Mueller’s paintings are a reactionary reprise of lyrical abstraction, beautiful but enervated; glamour under glass, they are sustained by an exhaustive battery of cosmetics and prostheses (stain, impasto, hachure, scumbling, scribble) detached from conceptual or emotional moorings to become free-floating, painterly items, an inventory of stock. A wan attempt to keep up with fashion (two suggestions of Jedd Garet-like figures) seems sadly foolish and ill advised.

Second scenario: Mueller’s paintings are an act of protective coloration in the service of extended life. Hidden in the exuviae of an abandoned style is a revisionist effort to rescue abstraction from the tautological nightmare of a formalism it helped spawn. Or, to put it another way, this series recognizes that over time abstract painting has become paradoxically iconic insofar as its marks have turned generic, pointers to rather than expressions of emotions or ideas. And if nonrepresentational painting has turned representational in another sense—if it is now read symbolically, as its earliest practitioners always claimed it should be—(and now we are talking narrative, the record of a soul, etc.)—Mueller seems to be asking here how far toward representation such work can go, how much of a narrative it can sustain without ceasing to be abstract. It is not so much, then, as one critic has suggested, a matter of “perception over conception,” at least in this particular run of canvases, as a question of the subtle interrelation of the two—at what point does one turn into the other?

Not surprisingly, the narrative that Mueller concerns himself with is the myth of beginnings—in fact, a Bildungsroman of the creation myth. Starting from the paintings first encountered in the gallery—in which the two figures and a serpentlike form appear—and proceeding to the flame/leaf/flagellum shapes on swirling, circulating grounds—easy to describe as some sort of primal soup—it’s possible to construct a passage of these myths from the biblical to the “scientific.” Or perhaps what is intended is not so much a chronology as an anatomy of approaches: literary, geological (the big bang), atomic (particles in the accelerator), biological (swimming spermatazoa, efflorescence), evolutionary (amoeboid to humanoid). Mueller’s palette, exquisitely muddy hues flaring suddenly into tongues of brilliance, could provide an illustration for the text “Let there be light,” capturing a life-out-of-fertile-slime quality. (The conjunction of fertility and spirals surely suggests Georgia O’Keeffe as a parallel, particularly the less naturalistic of her “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” series from the ’30s.) Even the deconstruction of painting’s vocabulary, the programmatic review of devices already mentioned (running the gamut from stained to bare canvas, from mandalic to diagonal compositions), seems motivated by a desire for a “what makes it tick” exposition not unlike that of the Enlightenment’s metaphor of the universe as a wound-up watch.

Analogizing in the optative mood—that’s the point. While shapes on a field are always more provocative of Rorschach projection than all-overness, the only grounds tor all this speculation are the figures (which, as we have seen, it is possible to judge harshly as exploitive) and some of the titles. Monk and Bedding and Whore and Forever tell us that the two forms are male and female respectively, and the latter’s pejorative epithet reinforces the connection with Eve; Onnagata Sea Monkey emits weak Darwinian signals about pedigrees on land and sea. Titles, however, are notoriously unreliable and utterly rejected by purists. It’s as if Mueller adheres to a threshold theory of response—he tests the limits of our tolerance, our immunity to “reading,” by bombarding us with microscopic clues to the painting’s meanings. Some succumb quickly, some not at all. Unlike Troy Brauntuch, David Salle, or Robert Rauschenberg, who set up elaborate invitations, almost solicitations, to interpret their work and then make that interpretation virtually impossible, Mueller, by using abstraction, to which such a fear of metaphor still attaches, arranges it so that his manipulations are barely there. Viewers cannot be sure they aren’t simply free-associating without the artist’s imprimatur. In this Mueller is faithful to the inchoate requirements of the sublime; as Edmund Burke put it, “A clear idea is . . . another name for a little idea.” Thus Mueller moves in the interstices between what Clement Greenberg might say about, for instance, red—red is red is red—and what Mark Rothko might say about it—red is the distillation of a specific emotion. His choice of creativity as a subject matter seems on the one hand to give Greenberg a dressing-down, but the relativity of his shifting viewpoints of it “corrects” the single-minded subjectivity of abstraction’s pioneers.

Jeanne Silverthorne