Catalogue Essays

Double Trouble: Thomas Müller, Time, and the Art of the Absurd

catalogue essay for exhibition at Haus Gallery, Los Angeles

How can sculpture relate to time if it always stands still? “Time-based media,” a relatively new term, refers to film, sound, or performance. Generally it refers to works that can be experienced in their entirety through time as opposed to painting, where we seem to grasp the image in an instant. We find time in traditional sculpture through the scars that etch filigreed paths across Greek marble or the patina of raindrops that stain Rodin’s bronze. We see time acting upon sculpture rather than acting from within. For most of its history western sculpture sought to resist time, to tell stories that transcend its gravity, using materials that would hold up against the ravages of history.

Tom Müller takes time as his subject. Like a harlequin trickster, he treats time as if it were a pile of balloons at a birthday party. Twisting, squeaking, and rustling about, he presents us with one odd creature after another that are at once playful and profound.

In once sense, time acts for Müller through memory, a memory that serves as the architecture of his identity, as in the animal imagery he mines from his childhood in Africa. Giraffes, elephants or rhinos act as stand-ins or signs that conflate the popular American image of Africa with vague images from his own recollection.

Müller’s playfulness often gives way to philosophical ideas of impermanence and mortality that also haunt his work. Majestic is a piece that involves an elephant standing on a tomato. We first see a large photograph that shows the tomato to be large, round, and beautifully lit. A clay elephant balances on its ripe skin, held by the buoyancy of the juice within. But below this image we see a vitrine with these same characters, days later, withered, fallen and molding away. The juxtaposition of the two underlines the loss of life in this fruit but it also shows how sculpture itself exists in time, how its body and by implication our bodies shift as the hourglass slowly empties.

The use of photography in Majestic is telling. A photograph steals a moment of time and holds it, arrested in physical form. By using photography in relation to sculpture, Müller treats sculpture itself as an event not merely a record or retelling of a concrete moment. Roland Barthes said that photography always refers to death. When photography takes a subject out of time, it implicitly refers to that subject’s eventual demise. For Barthes, the immortality of the photograph refers to the mortality of its subject.

We might think of the decayed tomato as the center of the action, where we encounter the sign of death. But through Barthes we understand that it is the photograph, the record of perfection itself that is the ultimate reminder of its undoing. But there is a second doubling and maybe even a third. Not only does the photograph refer to the sculpture, their total image refers back to us the viewer and to their maker. It is the double that acts as a mirror, that points to our own mortality.

But this is too serious. We are forgetting the ridiculous combination of an elephant and a tomato in the first place. Absurdity is found in much of Müller’s work. A painted pig hogtied by balloons? A herd of pink giraffes creeping up on a tiny pea? Müller also uses produce as the original for multiple casts. Produce? Why duplicate an orange? Are there not enough to go around? In the age of Wal-Mart and corporate farming does fruit have poetic possibility? But in asking the question, in confronting the silliness of the situation, we catch a glimpse of the potential for meaning. How does sculpture relate to its origin in nature? How do multiples in turn relate to the original in sculpture?

These questions are meant to be provoked by Müller’s work. They are not meant to be answered. But they do allow for a kind of intellectual play between the nature of sculpture as body and that of our own. In this way the act of making is not only embodied in the work it is also framed as a strategy for actualizing meaning.

In a way, the gesture of the cast is not unlike Müller’s use of scale. A tiny elephant exists in relation to the image that we have of its massive bulk. It is the juxtaposition that is both familiar and strange and therein lies the joke, the mischief. For Müller, the joke is meant to help us see things, big and small, grand and mundane as a narrative for sculpture, dream life, and the tenuous fragility of our own existence.

Wild at Heart

Catalogue Essay for Feral Nature at University of Texas, Dallas curated by Margaret Meehan

In post-Enlightenment self-congratulatory humanist literature, civilization is often defined in terms of its opposite – the wild. Order is prized and associated with the human, while chaos is relegated to the animal world. Sometimes there is overlap, as in the madness that lies in the bowels of the jungle in Heart of Darkness and its subsequent film adaptation, Apocalypse Now. The jungle in Conrad’s tale is the setting for us to remember our primal origins. For Coppola, our feral nature is easily revealed once war strips away the thin veneer of civilized behavior.

Pages of ink have been spilt on the colonialist narrative implicit in Heart of Darkness and the western racism that looked at not only the African body but also the African landscape as primitive, wild and frightening. What Coppola does is reverse this to see how the westerner (the American military) can also exhibit behavior that is uncivilized, untamed and wild with rage.

A crucial scene in this film involves the ritual slaughter of an ox. We first hear the psychotically calm whisper of Marlon Brando (Kurtz) spewing logical knots. “We train young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘FUCK’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.” Soon Willard (Martin Sheen) is seen fulfilling his mission to assassinate Kurtz, intercut with the brutal killing of the animal. We are left with Kurtz’s whisper, “The horror. The horror.” Humans kill. Animals kill. Which is civilized and which is wild?

“He’s an animal!” “She’s a bitch!” We often say these things to compare ourselves to something other. But in these comparisons we also separate ourselves from the truly feral and unruly.

Humans and animals are not so easily set up as opposites. Feral Nature probes the boundaries between wild and domesticated behavior, the way that our bodies function as both nature and culture. It also seeks to investigate the way that animals become stand-ins for our own fears and desires. The nature here is not merely animal but feral, with an emphasis on the untamed.

Will Rogan and Jenny Schleif both use a human body isolated in uncivilized behavior. Rogan ‘s video of his daughter playing amplifies both play and childhood and their freakish untamed qualities by using mirrors to multiply her image. Schleif dresses up in kitschy cute bunny ears, conflating little girl fantasies with the all too familiar Playboy animal of choice. Exposed in isolation she forces us into voyeurs, caught in a moment that is both intimate and primal, carrying us on a journey where a human body is transformed by pleasure.

Thomas Müller, Clayton Hurt and John Byrd use animals as metaphor. Müller looks at two qualities of animal behavior: their tendency toward the pack (vaguely resembling a more human mob) and the scale relationship between animals and humans. Hurt animates his animals to the point of anthropomorphism but emphasizes such unabashed behavior that they become animals that are like humans that are like animals. John Byrd animates his animals simultaneously emphasizing their use as specimens, trophies, and objectified cute trinkets.

Claire Cowie riffs on the metaphoric use of animals but with more attention to the precedent in storybook illustration and fairy tales. This is an adult projection of a child’s connection to animals, as if by implication, uncivilized children are somehow more connected to the animal kingdom. This was the premise of Art-Brut but Cowie emphasizes the sweetness of childhood rather than a romanticized view of their primal nature. Raychael Stine uses pop to create a similar sense of candy-coated romanticism in her approach to animals. This sense of fantasy separates them from our reality and emphasized the disconnect between human and animal psychologies.

Karen Davenport and Bradly Brown literally pan back and forth between human and animal subjects, catching each in moments of verisimilitude. Here the camera becomes voyeur, slicing these moments out of continuum and positing the possibility that an untamed subject exists in the moments between poses, between clear cultural constructions.

While Apocalypse Now may probe the more extreme dimensions of the wild, emphasizing madness and violence, many of these artists open up multiple ways of looking at animal behavior. They allow humor, playfulness, and kitsch all human projections on the animal kingdom – to be folded back onto what we consider to be the purity of untamed creatures. These artists show us that the borderland between civilization and the wild is permeable. Through interiority and absent-mindedness we sometimes shed our domesticated selves and reveal our feral nature.

Specular Image of the “I”: Brian Murphy Painting
unpublished essay for show at Winston Wachter, Seattle

In his essay, the Mirror Stage, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan describes the moment when a child confronts its image for the first time. Prior to this event, the child has little control over its body. It is an amalgam of fragmented perceptions of movement and weight. At this moment, usually between 6 and 18 months, the child sees their whole image in a mirror and compares it to someone else, usually the mother. The child sees itself, and in some sense becomes a whole being, constituting an “I” for the first time. But this self, caught beneath the glass of the mirror, is necessarily imaginary and split from the body.

Brian Murphy’s paintings are simultaneously an attempt to construct a whole sense of self through painting and an acknowledgement of the fragmenting and slippage that occurs in the act of seeing.

Murphy paints self-portraits. They are usually made with a small handheld mirror, which provides the pieces of perception. He uses the viscosity of watercolor and oil paint to embody the passing glimpses of his reflection. More recently, Murphy has been expanding the scale and scope of the mirror. Consequently the image widens from head to shoulders and torso. Soon, the whole body is revealed, complete with hairy nipples, a sagging belly and bare feet. Seen in succession, through time, the result is almost filmic, like a pan out from the proverbial close-up.

The nakedness of the head is something that we take for granted. But when nakedness continues from the head, down the body, culminating in the genitals, a certain taboo has been broken. But the nakedness of the full figure has been subject matter for a long time. The human figure has been used as an ideal since the Greeks. By as the body is idealized, it is also necessarily objectified. The body as model stands in for beauty, strength, or heroism – distant ideas from our own body and self. What do these ideas mean when confronting our own naked image? And how does nakedness vacillate between taboo and tradition?

Nakedness is both public and private. It can be sexy, offering up the body as a subject of desire but nakedness can also underline the body as biological fact, calling up not only our growth but also our decay and eventual mortality. It is the latter that made Rembrandt’s late self-portraits so haunting and its combination with the former that makes Jenny Saville’s paintings so powerful.

Nakedness is the revelation of skin. But it is not skin itself that is inherently about sex or death. Skin is the fabric that paves the borderland between ourselves and the world around us. Sex and death lies in the desire to cross or transcend that border, into the realm of the other. Looking for fulfillment or absolution, desire reaches out from the self and in doing so defines us.

In Lacan’s Mirror Stage, we become whole by necessarily becoming split from ourselves. We see ourselves seeing ourselves split between body and image. The image in the mirror becomes an imaginary projection of the self that we know as our body and according to Lacan; we want to bring these two together. Murphy’s Self-Portrait/you and me, 2005 embodies this desire by doubling his image as if a parasitic twin is growing from his head.

In some sense, Murphy uses a similar process by extending this specular imaging from the body to the mirror to the rectangle that serves as the ground for his paintings. This third piece allows the possibility of yet a fourth, the viewer. We become implicated in this complex matrix of self-making, a process that is even more pronounced with the evident trace and residue of the painting under construction. We see a self-becoming and as witness, we participate in this act.

In confronting Murphy’s standing self-portraits, we see the image of a man looking back at us as self and other. We know that this man is other but in some way, his verticality and nakedness allow for comparison. Not unlike our own experience of looking in the mirror. One thing that radically alters this experience is the gaze.

Some of Murphy’s heads lie passive, almost asking our gaze to wash over the image like Self Portrait Asleep, 2005. But some of these images look back directly at us, with blank concentration or with a mischievous smirk. The gaze tears through the comfortable distance of the objectified naked model. Feeling his eyes on us calls up the radical theatricality of Manet’s Olympia, as if she were to stand up, naked and unashamed to greet her suitor. But 150 years later in a post-feminist world, unabashedly bared masculinity also conjures up images of David Wojnarowicz or Matthew Barney.

The gaze dares us to look, it flirts, and when the gaze retreats behind closed eyes, the image invites us to look around and indulge our curiosity. Especially when revealed in full frame Murphy’s figure is large, a hulking mass of flesh. In a society where plastic surgery, Pilates, botox and beefcake are the norm, Murphy stands out. When he dares us to look, it is to acknowledge him, rather than averting our eyes from an unabashed defiance of the norm. When he flirts, he asks us to see his body as an object of desire. But held in the pristine whiteness of a drawing’s ground he is left without comparison. His size is the only size and we have only ourselves to find proportion.

When these images drip with the residue of watercolor, they call up the gravity that acts on flesh and bone. They ask us to feel his weight as we do our own, pulled down by centrifugal force. When the pigment is erased, smudged, and slathered, it is simultaneously indulging in and causing violence to the flesh that is its subject. A difference of size reifies the otherness that exists already. By facing himself he challenges us to face him and accept the otherness that we too posses in the mirror of Brian Murphy.