Stefan Müller, Stretch Your Arms, 2010, oil and marker on canvas, 67 x 55".

Stefan Müller, Stretch Your Arms, 2010, oil and marker on canvas, 67 x 55".

Stefan Müller

Galerie Nagel Draxler | Berlin

Stefan Müller, Stretch Your Arms, 2010, oil and marker on canvas, 67 x 55".

Let’s not beat around the bush: Stefan Müller’s “Salon der Daheim-gebliebenen” (Salon for the Ones Who Stayed Home) was a straight-up painting show. And as so often happens when painting starts to get interesting, it was treated here as “material”—both literally, with respect to the “material” of canvas and its preparation, and figuratively, as a self-reflexive “theme,” a set of various basic elements that can be shuffled and interwoven in many different ways.

The process of painting, Müller reminds us, begins already with the various textures of the canvases and materials as well as the way they are stretched on their frames. Often his canvases are stretched loosely, so that they buckle or display kinks or pleats—these imperfections operate as painterly gestures. Sometimes Müller bleaches or dyes his canvases using batik methods, or uses them to wipe his studio floor, so that not only the obligatory traces of paint but also ashes, dust, dirt, and beer and other fluids find their way into the pictures. Naturally the rejection of an artistic subject and the embrace of a sort of peinture automatique, in which chance plays a major role in determining the image, have become program points here. But that gesture of wiping the studio floor goes even further in its in-your-face nonchalance: Painting is be-ing tossed on the floor and dragged through the dirt, and this gesture, in the punk-style trash poetry of its concrete manifestation, is at least potentially formulating its own conceptual turning: away from the notion of the Great Painter as a refusal of even critique itself, a scornful overfulfillment of a project that itself has long since coagulated into a standard reflection on the medium.

And this is precisely the standpoint from which the second stage of Müller’s painting process can perhaps be understood as well—that is, the part that begins after the canvas has been stretched on its frame. On these variously prepared canvases, he now begins to draw almost classically. And so he takes a step back, placing himself at a distance from the picture that beforehand had been virtually generating itself; and then, with a marker, say, draws little circles around apparently arbitrary spots in the scooped-up paint structure of the canvas, as in Stretch Your Arms (all works 2010). On the completely untreated canvas of Manche (Some), one can even make out, amid a thicket of bright, squiggly lines, a classic still-life painting motif that seems to be putting up quite a fight against taking shape as an object: a flower vase. But the picture that has gone the furthest on this road toward figuration is Adidas. Here, among several circles, two delicate but clearly recognizable faces emerge. One might see this second level that often enough just scrapes by on the threshold of cliché as a sort of “inconsistency” with regard to the rigorously conceptual, self-reflexive, and material-based procedure in the first step, as a watering down of what is finally a concisely formulated deconstruction of the painterly. One might also, however, interpret Müller’s excursions into the terrain of classical painting quite differently: as yet another quite conscious contamination, this time of an august conceptualism that in its repudiation of the direct and expressive has itself taken refuge in the realm of the sublime. But then these tiny interventions that plumb the depths of the most banal traditional subjects drag the pictures back onto the solid ground of factuality. It’s only here that things can really start to get dirty.

Dominikus Müller

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.