in Frieze | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

David A. Greene on Dave Muller

Dave Muller

in Frieze | 04 MAR 97

At some point in the last hundred years, contemporary art became an institution, with schools of concrete and of thought, museums, magazines and galleries all devoted to it. Free-thinking artists have traditionally dealt with this affront to their autonomy in either of two ways: by bucking convention, or by attacking it directly. In either case, if they're good at what they do, all such artists ­ whether within or without art's official institutions ­ become institutionalised themselves. Many then spend the rest of their careers denying this fact, while suffering its considerable rewards.

This scenario applies, of course, only if you consider the institutionalisation of art (and of yourself) to be a problem. I don't think Dave Muller sees it this way. Less a measured decision than a natural course of action, Muller's arrival at this uncommonly mature, seemingly nihilistic conclusion is surely not unique among young artists reared amid the boom-and-bust cycle of the 80s and early 90s, and the crisis of relevance that has followed.

Muller's art can be divided into two distinct, yet complementary categories: his hand-made announcements for shows of fellow artists, and his occasional hosting of those shows in a sometimes exhibition space called Three Day Weekend in Angeleno Heights. The oldest commuter neighbourhood in Los Angeles, this Ur-suburb, now slashed and landlocked by freeways, is a jumble of Victorian houses, some carved into decrepit bunkhouses for day labourers and gangsters, others landmarked and nicely restored by owners who eschew the gated communities they could well afford. Muller rents one of these old houses, and it's here that he hosts three-day-long group shows featuring his friends and artists he likes, held whenever there's a public holiday artificially situated on a Friday or Monday. (The show goes on the road, too: Muller has held Three Day Weekend events in Houston, Tokyo, London and Berlin.) Unlike the commercial gallery openings out in Santa Monica, at Three Day Weekend there's no pressure to schmooze, to see and be seen: Muller's receptions involve no activity more stressful than listening to an art-garage band, or eating a hot dog. While for Muller it may constitute part of his art practice, for many young LA artists Three Day Weekend is the equivalent of Midnight Basketball: just something to do.

The parallel here, if not exactly intentional, is obvious: by providing a community centre for wayward artists, Muller becomes his own institution. Providing a relaxed conviviality so vital in an art town notorious for its lack of genuine public gatherings, Three Day Weekend performs the generous grass-roots services that other so-called alternative art institutions, such as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, have forgotten or neglected in their drive to secure government funding and national acclaim. While those artist-service bureaucracies hold group shows chosen by artists' committees and ask artists to donate works to auctions that fund their bloated, self-perpetuating budgets, Muller does exactly the opposite - providing a good time and a place to show, with the only fees being an occasional couple of bucks for beer. And since Three Day Weekend has never claimed a responsibility to any 'community' of artists, nor ever asked anything from them, it can stop anytime. Here, the public and private worlds of Muller's art diverge, as his personal agenda supersedes his civic duty: for to keep Three Day Weekend going, Muller must feed off its participants.

In 1994, Muller made a single, hand-drawn poster for an exhibition by Los Angeles artist Andrea Bowers. More followed. Announcements for friends' shows would pop up here and there: behind the desk at a gallery, at a concert, or somewhere on the wall at Three Day Weekend. Muller likens these to posters for indie bands, cheap handmade things put up in places where the kids who might enjoy the music hang out. Unlike other artists who tread the dicey territories of amateur rock-n-roll and visual ephemera, however, Muller doesn't abscond with the form and use it as a fashionable vehicle for highfalutin' rhetoric. If anything, his content, with its shaky typography and delicate illustrations, is of about the same calibre.

At first, the announcements' themes, like Three Day Weekend itself, were a mixture of the sweet and pranksterish: one involved a scavenger hunt in which viewers who could prove they had seen the shows of the two artists advertised were eligible to win Muller's original drawing. Later, the media in which artists worked began to be echoed in the pieces: an accordion-folded set of announcement cards for Mitchell Syrop, for example, is made from knee-high aluminium panels - the same material Syrop uses to mount his photographic grids. Inevitably, as the construction of these works became more elaborate - and galleries started to express interest - Muller's advertisements became Art. But like the slippery performance-event Three Day Weekend, the change has been practically invisible, and possibly impermanent. For every announcement that shows up on a retail gallery wall, Muller travels to neighbouring venues and asks to put up other, similarly functional but less commercialised ones, thus refuelling the karmic mix.

Newer announcements aren't always for artists Muller knows, or even for those he particularly likes. His contribution to 'Stream of Consciousness' a 1996 group show at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was a set of painted advertisements for the other entrants. LA painter Monique Prieto's playful abstractions were depicted as a pair of snuggly Eva Zeisel salt-and-pepper shakers - a tribute to Prieto's moderne influences, sure, but also a deflation of the current hype around her work locating it as more revisionary than nostalgic. Another work recalls a 1978 exhibition by Andre Cadere (1934-78), the Romanian radical who would 'exhibit' his trademark round bars of wood by surreptitiously placing them in other artists' shows - thereby pissing off plenty of purportedly avant-garde control freaks. Muller's Cadere poster out-Caderes Cadere by including these multicoloured bars, but with Muller's own formal signature, drawn pairs of 'googly eyes,' laid on top. Some of Muller's newest pieces aren't even about art at all; topics include the new digital video disc (DVD), and the year 1998.

Rather than using art's tired strategies of making obscene gestures in power's general direction or mimicking its expensive trappings, Muller makes power his own by attaching himself to his up-and-coming peers, under-appreciated heroes, technologies and times, all the while giving them (and himself) a qualified leg-up. This give-and-take, obvious to those willing to recognise it, is both a pragmatic position and a supremely moral one - at least as far as art is concerned, with its post-Warholian history of obfuscation and denial of just such self-seeking desire. Perhaps most telling in this respect is one of Muller's most recent projects: the cover for the March/April 1997 issue of Art issues magazine. Reproduced on it is a watercolour by Muller of a sculpture by Jennifer Pastor - a Los Angeles artist who has experienced a flurry of attention in the art press this past season, raising the spectre of conspiratorial control that haunts all meritocratic systems of commerce and fame. In Muller's hands, yet another art magazine cover featuring one of Pastor's hyperreal nature-sculptures becomes a three-dimensional conceptual object: one more cog in the semi-sentient Pastor promotional machine, but also a notch on Muller's CV, and a prop for his reputation as a sharp yet self-effacing critic of his generation. Muller's Pastor is as sweetly cynical, generously selfish a package as you can get - and a mirror of the cringing optimism that every aware and ambitious artist must be feeling at this extremely iffy moment in high-cultural history.