By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“A lot of the artists I make connections between aren’t necessarily people whose work interests me,” he says. “I just see a relationship that needs to be made, and make it.” On the whole, however, Muller‘s archive of handcrafted advertisements very clearly articulates the channels of mentoring, mutual-admiration pacts and traded favors that underlie most art-world success stories. The remarkable thing is how unsleazy it seems when brought into the open, even displayed with pride as a deliberate, aesthetic accomplishment. If this were the extent of Muller’s project -- to bear witness to the nuts-and-bolts social construction of art-world reality -- it might seem a little pat. But the incorporation of noise into the system -- allowing randomness to foster new directions, employing ambiguous material that sends viewers off on their own unpredictable associative tangents, and following the impulse toward the more recent autobiographical material in spite of the critic-friendly success of the earlier work -- shows Muller‘s concept to be essentially open-ended, a light-handed but attentive agnosticism that cultivates its own garden but doesn’t build fences around it.
The similarities between Muller and Sam Durant, while not immediately obvious, are inescapable. They have been friends and colleagues since meeting at school -- a number of Muller‘s earliest faux announcements are for Durant productions (including a now-disowned foray into art-noise vinyl and New York Times critic Roberta Smith’s brief, dismissive review of Durant‘s second N.Y. show), and Durant participated in almost every one of Muller’s first few dozen weekend shows. They both did time as assistants to Mike Kelley. Both have shown for the last few years at the high-profile Santa Monica gallery Blum & Poe (where both have additional solo exhibitions scheduled over the next couple of months), and both are about equally overdue for their museum debuts. So their almost simultaneous institutional endorsement at opposite ends of the city seems almost contrived to beg comparison.
The most obvious commonality is a strategy of producing socially provocative work grounded in borrowed popular culture but realized in a self-conscious high-art vocabulary. But where Muller‘s hyperabundant watercolors verge on the giddily psychedelic, Durant’s work is often reductive and monochromatic. His best-known installations conflate popular iconography of the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Kurt Cobain with the late-‘60s art practices of land artist Robert Smithson, as well as material-minded conceptualists like Robert Morris, Joseph Beuys, Joan Jonas and a host of others; they seldom venture beyond the gray-scale spectrum of ink, graphite, felt, mirror and mostly unfinished building materials. But Durant’s limited palette is more indicative of his debt to modernist sculpture than any lack of aesthetic brio.
From his early photos, collages and models despoiling high modernist design and architecture (L.A.‘s Case Study houses are given a particularly brutal re-imagining), through his uber-abject Proposal for Monument at Altamont Raceway, Tracy, CA -- his unlikely compass-spinning conflation of Southern rock legends the Allman Brothers and L.A.-born Japanese-American public sculptor Isamu Noguchi -- to his most recent fiberglass array of uprooted tree trunks, Durant’s art is deeply concerned with formal issues. “I think there are all these aesthetic parallels -- or trajectories -- in the work that exist on a formal level,” says Durant. “I use it as a counterpoint to the conceptual and subject matter.”
The quest to find a balance between the conceptual and formal elements of his work is only one aspect of Durant‘s almost obsessive concern with one of the most hardwired of our aesthetic structures: symmetry. On the physical level, this often results in extremely potent visual and kinesthetic experiences. In terms of content, Durant’s work is almost aggressively ambiguous, straddling seemingly contradictory world-views and refusing to throw the art‘s formal weight squarely behind one or another. His grim and funny exegesis of Altamont into the vocabulary of desperately end-of-the-road ’60s visionaries is positively disconcerting in its marriage of defeatism and provocation, its insistence on continuing to talk about how there‘s nothing left to talk about.
The new piece in Durant’s MOCA survey (ably curated by former Weekly critic Michael Darling), Upside-Down Pastoral Scene, perches 12 inverted arboreal root systems on large mirrors throughout an expansive, brightly lit gallery, and wires each one for sound. A soundtrack splinters a program of African-American music (from Billie Holiday‘s “Strange Fruit” to Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet”) so that it swirls around the viewer in the midst of the eccentric archetypal prop forest, simultaneously evoking and undermining a linear historical reading of racial struggles in America‘s last century, conjuring the vertiginous exhilaration of being lost in the woods.
Durant stresses the absence of autobiographical material in his work, then points out how his early debased case-study work is directly derived from his tour of duty as a carpenter working for architects, and how his racial identity is a key part of Upside-Down Pastoral Scene. “In this case, I’m aware that it‘s part of it. I’m interested in the fact that I‘m a white artist dealing with black culture and issues of racism -- mirroring, in a way, the whole appropriation of rock & roll by Elvis and the Rolling Stones.”