Los Angeles

Otto Muehl


A member of the Viennese Aktionist movement of the 1960s, and noted in particular for “material actions” that involved coating bodies engaged in choreographed carnality in soup, juice, and milk, Otto Muehl is no stranger to shock. Founder of the promiscuity-centered Friedrichshof Commune, he was imprisoned for most of the ’90s on charges of “criminal acts against morality.” The real surprise about Muehl’s recent exhibition at MC, however, was that it represented the eighty-year-old’s first-ever solo exhibition in the US. Attempting to make up for lost time, the gallery borrowed works from the Friedrichshof Collection and the Otto Muehl Archive in Paris, offering a spotty survey that included three 1964 short films by Kurt Kren, each documenting a Muehl performance.

Although they now look rather like home movies from a scatology cult, it’s difficult not to be nostalgic about these films. The sobering knowledge that they appeared in the same year as My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, and A Hard Day’s Night helps us see just how far outside the popular realm Muehl has always operated. But it was also the year that mainstream culture brought us the dark humor of Dr. Strangelove and the TV version of The Addams Family, a weekly cocktail of sexual innuendo and mortifications of the flesh. Considered in this context, the Kren films now seem like not-so-radical period pieces, and the actions they document appear provocative not for any breaking of taboos, but for their manic theatricality and brilliant quasi-literalist visual metaphors, such as the overinflated balloons that, when squeezed between writhing bodies, pop to shower participants in pillow-fight feathers.

More genuinely noteworthy were the paintings in the show that were produced between 1988 and 1990, all of which fall relatively tidily within the category of painting. These works are closer to the action painting from which Muehl’s performance work departed, and recall the products of Nouveau Realisme and arte povera. Yet in comparison, Muehl’s works are less spectacular, overtly referential, and poetic. What they are is brutally intense—impressively erotic, disturbing, and in ways that the earlier work may aspire to but rarely achieves. Ultimately, they are more compelling than any of the puddles and piles that populate Kren’s footage—not because they cross any lines, but because in their simple material (mostly oil paint, dirt, and other ordinary substances) and application (stains, smears, skids, and dustings), they more subtly evoke the angst and desire into which Muehl’s actions tapped.

More disappointing were two works from 2002, cartoonishly figurative acrylic paintings, one decorated with a square of chocolate and both daubed with feces. These seem gratuitous and, in the context of Muehl’s oeuvre, regressive. Either infantile, megalomaniacal, or both, Muehl seems misguidedly convinced that his excrement holds special power. Unfortunately, in the wake of numerous scatological diversions from the likes of Piero Manzoni, Dieter Roth, and Wim Delvoye, and in the era of Fear Factor and Jackass, it’s rather more redolent of cliché than radicalism.

Christopher Miles