Dave Muller at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
By: Jan Tumlir
Sometime in the 1990s, the critical mandate of the prior decade’s “appropriation art” underwent a casual revision by an emerging generation less inclined to feel itself victimized by the “society of the spectacle.” Pop-cultural citation would continue apace, but in a less anxious, less clinical manner, one that evoked an element of personal investment. Overall, Dave Muller’s work could serve as a case in point, especially his latest exhibition, “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” Deriving this insistently affirmative title from the Beatles’ 1963 song “She Loves You,” the Los Angeles–based artist focused on the era of the band’s rise to mania-inducing superstardom and presented a range of that decade’s collectibles, ephemera, and iconography—from notable record sleeves to smiley-face buttons to a portrait of Ed Sullivan.
Muller rendered the imagery with his characteristically light and friendly touch, in watered-down acrylic on paper. Its collective impact, however, was anything but anodyne. For instance, the head-on depiction of a fighter plane in Not Strangelove (all works cited, 2012) tips toward critique (perhaps relating to the Beatles’ dalliance with the protest song) when placed in dialogue with Little (Ed)—the aforementioned Sullivan portrait, which, overwritten with four boldface yeahs, seemed suggestive of the Fab Four’s “conquest of America.” Other pieces spoke more obliquely to the cultural moment, including Labyrinths (Forking Paths), a modest triptych that depicts paperback copies of Borges’s 1962 volume of short fiction. Once a college-dorm staple, Borges’s titles, commonly found on a shelf just above the likewise “trippy” record collection, used to boast a certain countercultural cachet.
But by every indication, cultural products no longer neatly signify this way. Vaporized as concrete things to take up a second life in the cloud, they have only become increasingly interchangeable. In the act of reproducing these various relics of the not-so-distant past, Muller commemorated a time when social identifiers were implicitly territorial. Yet nostalgia here served less to remind us of how things once were than to articulate the way they are now. Of note is Muller’s sharp focus on wear and tear. Convincingly, and with hard-won ease and economy, he takes care to depict signs of use—the creasing of record sleeves, the softening of book spines, the fading of photographs—causing the objects he recovers in his work to appear suspended somewhere between the auratic and the trashed, their exchange value depreciated, their sign value destined to grow ever more opaque to ensuing generations. As though intended to distress or age these works, Muller’s technique involves a liberal application of drips and stains; paradoxically, it is this feature that most clearly ties the works to the present, to the artist’s own hand and authorship of the work, while suggesting, as well, all that slips out of grasp. Here, pictorial facture functions both as a signature and something akin to a scratch on an LP.
In the last segment of the exhibition, the now-disbanded Beatles reappear, this time as corporate co-owners. Muller had installed four enlarged depictions of as many solo releases side by side. The works share the title Apple Core, Nothing More. Who’s Your Friend, with the name of each piece further identified by (John), (Paul), (George), and (Ringo), respectively. The albums appeared in plain black sleeves, which, through their circular die-cut centers, revealed Apple Records’ bright green logo. Throughout the space, Muller had also placed nine state-of-the-art Mac computer terminals—each loaded with a different playlist of period-appropriate hits, apple-shaped logos glowing a cool white. Together, these listening stations threatened cacophony, which was no doubt the point: When, in 2010, the computer giant purchased the Beatles’ back catalogue, it cemented a particular connection between then and now, one that charted a course toward an ever more highly pixelated cultural experience in tandem with its simultaneous compression. To be sure, Muller is not mounting an argument for either side; rather, he is drawing analogies between different kinds of noise, both visual and aural, from different periods, one already dissipating and the other still collecting.