Stefan Müller’s exhibition ‘Allerliebste Tante Polly’ (Most Beloved Aunt Polly), at the Kunstverein in his hometown of Cologne, is a lesson in strategies of self-deprecation. The left-hand wall of the gallery – a long space with banks of windows on either side – has been partitioned off by a hand-hewn fence comprising beams of differing heights. The broad picture windows that punctuate the opposite wall frame a picturesque courtyard with magnolia trees blossoming in the early spring sunlight. The 14 new paintings hanging in a row on the roughly whitewashed fence do not attempt to compete with the windows’ clearly delineated views, however. Neither uniformly sized nor evenly spaced, and hung at varying heights, their self-consciously casual installation suggests a devil-may-care attitude in tune with that of the paintings themselves. When the sun shines brightly, the slats of the fence cast shadows that are visible on the delicate surfaces of the unprimed, often loose-weave canvases. Despite being adversely affected by light and architecture, the paintings seem to shrug in the face of such imperfect conditions: their abstraction, though casual, is surprisingly resilient.
The play of forms on the sometimes hand-dyed and still crumpled surfaces, veers towards the accidental: often rounded volumes or circumferences, marked out in a range of muted tones, sometimes accented with a streak of brilliant blue or orange. The seductive, bruised pinks that define the patchy surface of Himmelhochaufgelöst und verstiegen (On Top of the World Dissolved and High-Flown, all works 2013) could be a corner of a Luc Tuymans painting, magnified beyond recognition. A yellow disk hovering above an inky blue-black horizon suggests a tentatively rising moon in Iris-Blende Jacksons Island. Lozenges of vibrant fuchsia, neon orange and green stand out on the raw linen surface of the smallest work here (Tante Polly’s Garten, Aunt Polly’s Garden), while the silver bubbles and sunspots in Oh Happy Day (One Hit Wonder) suggest the levity and exultation hinted at by the work’s title. Using a vocabulary of patches, drips, glares and smudges, the paintings wear their nonchalance with studied introspection. But in spite of their lackadaisical attitude, Müller’s paintings do not lack confidence. Rather, through their apparently modest appearance, they set out to undermine the supposed gravity of painting at every turn.
The whitewashed fence, while a practical measure to compensate for the difficulty of showing paintings in this wall-less room, brings with it a narrative component. As the exhibition’s title directs us, this is the fence Aunt Polly insisted that Tom Sawyer paint in Mark Twain’s famous novel of 1876. The constitutional laziness that characterizes Müller’s production finds its echo in Sawyer’s delegatory tactics, conning his pals into believing that the activity of painting was freely chosen, rather than enforced activity: ‘Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it,’ Tom boasts to a friend. ‘Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?’ The allusion extends to Müller’s self-deprecatory handling and installation of his works. Is the artist’s activity of painting an irksome obligation or a freely chosen pleasure? As Tom figures out, appraising his winnings at the end of the day, ‘Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and […] Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.’ Where does the task of the artist fall on this scale between work and play? Müller’s installation wavers between the two poles of obligation and free choice. Compulsion is overridden by cunning and nonchalance, and the burden of meaning is delegated to the installation strategy, while the canvases themselves remain free to roam unencumbered in the realms of pleasure, or refusal.