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Sam & Dave 

The politics of mixology

Wednesday, Oct 16 2002
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Fall is the time when the art world, back from its make-believe summer in the Hamptons, trots out its sure things, best bets and occasional startling debuts -- each clique showing off its bitchenest threads on the first day of school, hoping to establish or solidify a position high in the pecking order of coolness. Traditionally, this feisty rivalry has been the territory of the galleries, with museums trying to maintain a demeanor of dignified glacial remove from the shifting fashions of the more immediate contemporary scene. Of course, this isn‘t how it really works, and such distinctions have been gradually eroding for many years.

The UCLA Hammer Museum’s recent emergence as a venue for hip, young art seems to have spurred the L.A. museum community to new heights of “with-it”-ness. There was a time not so long ago when most of the new artists endorsed by the big museums were midcareer transplants from the EuroN.Y. axis of evil. You had to go to the Armory in Pasadena to see Tim Hawkinson (though most of his solo shows at Ace are museum-scale), the Santa Monica Museum for Kim Dingle‘s inspired remix of the Norton collection and for Jeffrey Vallance’s or Karen Carson‘s dazzling midcareer surveys, and Otis to see anyone else. But the times they are a-changin’, and the dueling 30-something-white-male-CalArts-rock-&-roll-post-appropriation-conceptualist-object-maker solo exhibits now on view at MOCA‘s California Plaza space and the Hammer constitute a case in point.

Dave Muller and Sam Durant are both alumni of CalArts’ renowned graduate program of the early ‘90s, an era notable for its emphasis on conceptual rigor. (I have yet to meet a CalArtian of that vintage who doesn’t speak of “defending” his work with a carefully winnowed spiel, as if constantly expecting the third degree over every tiny detail for the rest of his life.) This sort of posttraumatic self-consciousness is not uncommon in masters of fine art, and often results in dry, depleted art with an embarrassment of footnotes. One of the qualities that make Muller and Durant remarkable is how good their work actually looks.

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Muller is best known for the short-term, guerrilla-style curations, “Three Day Weekends,” and his vast output of watercolor riffs on other artists‘ show announcements -- the latter being the subject of his current, essentially self-curated show, “Connections,” which originated at Bard College and has opened at the Hammer. While still at CalArts, Muller began hand-painting “copies” of art-world ephemera -- posters, fliers, invitations, magazine covers, etc. -- usually altered substantially from the original in terms of pictorial content (as well as in translation into the delicate and unforgiving medium of watercolor) while retaining typographical and design elements intact. Some of these translations seem inexplicable, others are laugh-out-loud funny or quietly elegiac, but invariably they display a keen formalist design sense -- perversely turned toward producing fine-art editions of one from source materials intended for the trash. Like the labyrinthine output of Jim Shaw’s fictive alter ego “Billy” (an obvious formal and conceptual touchstone for Muller), their scope is exhaustive -- documenting friends‘ shows at artist-run spaces like Bliss, Food House and Tri, then expanding to cover East Coast big-leaguers like the Dia Art Foundation, Larry Gagosian and MoMA.

Shown in bits and pieces over the past eight years, the work was dismissed by some as a footnote to the already exhausted genre of ’80s Appropriationism, by others as gratuitous prettifying and humorizing of Serious Theoretical Issues. Gradually, the watercolors began encompassing less easily pigeonholed, more autobiographical content -- Muller‘s record collection, the clothes in his closet, the view out his window. While he garnered considerable acclaim locally and in Europe, “Connections” marks the first time most viewers will be given the chance to grasp Muller’s big picture, and it is bound to force a re-evaluation of his oeuvre.

“Connections” is hung salon style with a stacked and staggered kaleidoscope of exquisitely chromatic works on paper, and walking through the several large rooms allotted to him in the Hammer is a dizzying experience on a sheerly optical level. But delving -- even superficially -- into the tangled skein of art-historical narrative that the work details, let alone the ubiquitous visual puns (the paint splotches on a copied poster for Sam Francis‘ “Blue Balls” series reveal themselves to be coupling pairs of Volkswagen Beetles) and sly art-world commentary, can be downright disorienting, leaving the viewer with the impression of a vast, infinitely variegated network of interrelating bits of information, impossible to encompass from any single vantage.

Muller’s “Three Day Weekend” shows evolved from his grad-school project of turning his studio into an exhibition space for fellow students. What began as a version of the kind of self-promotional bedroom spaces in which most newly hatched professional artists exhibit became generally regarded as an ongoing, in-flux social sculpture cast by Muller. In order to accomplish this, he became highly attentive to the fine art of networking, of carefully building and maintaining social and political alliances within his community. In many ways, this has become what art is about in the last few decades, and is the underlying conceptual link between Muller‘s seemingly disparate practices.

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