New York

Stephen Mueller

Annina Nosei Gallery

Until recently, Stephen Mueller was an insouciant painter who combined various pictorial syntaxes—staining, geometry, and gesture—to evoke those elusive states between reflection and action, chaos and definition, which Willem de Kooning called the “slippery glimpse.” Using saccharine colors such as pink, mauve, and purple, Mueller filled the bounded stillness of his compositions with a painterly hurly-burly, making abstract works that were simultaneously seductive and off-putting, brash and funny. Mueller never felt that painting had to confront the end of history or the medium’s own dissolution; one imagines that, in his studio, Mueller listens to Erik Satie rather than Richard Wagner.

In his recent exhibition of 13 paintings ranging in size from relatively small to human scaled, Mueller seems to have entered a new phase in his career, and the works exhibited are, for the most part, somber and austere as opposed to impetuous and exhilarating.

Mueller deployed fewer formal elements here than in the earlier work. In Cafe Aman (all work, 1990), an economical vocabulary consisting of a horizontally striated, stained blue ground, a white round shape, and a few red or white lines can easily conjure a view through a window or a desert moon. And yet, for all of the comforting landscape references, the painting is disquieting. There is nothing romantic or romanticized about it, and the viewer comes away accepting the existential inevitability of human isolation. The cell-like structure of his forms—their layers, light, transparency, and mixture of solid and liquid forms—reminds us of the organic world inside each of us, and of the body’s vulnerability. All of this is realized in a muted way, however. Neither Sturm and Drang nor trumped-up sublime states are anywhere courted in Mueller’s paintings.

By making what could be considered “beautiful” paintings and introducing an element of vulnerability, change, and sickness into the works, Mueller suggests that everything—our sense of beauty, even of the sublime—is conditioned by convention and is subsequently mutable. At a time when many painters seem unsure how to proceed, Mueller’s metamorphosizing forms—the nebulous states they conjure—move from the known of history to the unknown of experience, generating realms of fresh possibility.

John Yau