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Sam & Dave

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.

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.

“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.”

In drawing their source material from others’ creative output, assembling their work from elements of culture that have already achieved recognition as works of art, Muller and Durant disrupt the notion of the artist expressing something from within, giving birth to a unique personal vision, of making the invisible visible. Nevertheless, both artists wind up creating bodies of work that articulate their personal views in great detail, and make us aware of resonances and affinities that would not have occurred to us on our own.

These artists are clearly concerned with the mutability of History in general, and the sometimes-arbitrary nature of Art History in particular, and believe that there‘s still something to be done about it. Each is forging an idiosyncratic corpus that is about the construction of personal, art-historical and capital-H History. Muller’s work also functions as an affectionate, literal alternative chronicle of a particular place and time. Durant, by materializing the points of concurrence on which his connections depend -- pop culture, celebrity, martyrdom, psychoanalysis, modernism, class and race struggles -- and arranging them as mutually destabilizing elements in his historical theatrical tableaux, posits a collagist mode of history as being equal to (and more vital than) the linear mode that gets all the press.

These variations in strategy correspond tellingly with the particular venue in which each artist is showing. Intentionally or not, Durant‘s work slots neatly into the nostalgic fetishization of ’60s utopian ephemerality that dominates much of MOCA‘s curatorial emphasis, and most trustees will be essentially reassured by his implicit acknowledgments of the sanctioned Important artists of their youth. There’s a distinctly unflattering frisson of narcissism and authoritarianism to Durant‘s depiction of the fortress of high art that could seem like flattery only to the most impenetrable, and MOCA’s decision to support it is surprising and courageous.

Muller‘s “Connections” are being exhibited by an upstart museum with an apparent mandate to cover some of the gaps left by sluggish curatorial habits elsewhere and an openness to unusual projects from unfamiliar faces. Muller’s omnivorous visual appetite is well-sited in the Hammer, whose interest in outsider art, bibliographic ephemera, and hip-hop-based graphics has produced some of the most refreshing exhibits in recent memory.

But this seeming polarity is itself deceptive, because, if competition is driving these individual artists as it is their sponsors, it is a competition in means rather than ends. Both Durant and Muller are confronting the social and political legacy of failed Modernism. The art world has been only too happy to leave the question dangling, stuffing the gap with attractive keepsakes. Since the mid-‘70s, the idea that art could make a difference in the world has been more or less relegated to the scrapheap. By re-configuring the hierarchical says-who of history, and through humor, invention and sheer persistence, artists like Muller and Durant make it clear that this mandate doesn’t emerge from art practice; that art and politics don‘t mix because they can’t be separated in the first place; and that the main trick is in figuring a way to talk yourself past the hall monitors.

SAM DURANT | At MOCA at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown | Through January 19

DAVE MULLER: “Connections” | At THE UCLA HAMMER MUSEUM, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood | Through January 5