RICHARD MUELLER WORKS
[First published as a brochure for Richard Mueller's Jan./Feb. 1990 exhibition at the Technical University of Nova Scotia -- now called Daltech -- School of Architecture in Halifax, Nova Scotia.]
Three small squares, one green and two red, are set in a ground of saturated colour in Richard Mueller's 1986 work Is Red More Wicked Than Green?, an acrylic and paper abstract painting. That is all you need to know about a much more complicated painting in order for me to make two quick characterizations of Mueller's work.
Firstly, Mueller is a natural colourist who delights in strongly saturated paint. Secondly, and one can read this between the lines of his artist's statement, Mueller's painting grows partly out of his life as an art educator, someone who continues to be art-educated himself through teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design and the Technical University of Nova Scotia School of Architecture in Halifax. Mueller's native enthusiasm, combined with a deep respect for students, opens him out to many artistic discoveries.
The recent works in painting and sculpture mark a significant development for Mueller. For several years he has made investigative, formal paintings which easily align themselves with a certain long pedagogical art school tradition. If nothing else, Is Red More Wicked Than Green? is an analysis of the visual elements of painting; colour, line, form, material, perspective, and emotional weight are juggled for effect. Such painting gives one the sense of going over the evidence of an artist's quiet, philosophical play.
The recent works, however, add loaded imagery to formal play, setting the philosophical mix on edge. These paintings, sculptures and drawings participate with much other current art in the imagery of environmental catastrophe. For Mueller, the references to toxins highlight an essential paradox in technology, which he characterizes as being simultaneously symbolic of human annihilation and human salvation.
The artist's experience of the Emergency Training Centre for the Department of National Defence got the work started. Halifax is the location of a major armed forces base in Canada, and the military occupies many scattered sites around the city. Witnessing emergency training procedures at the base as he drove past on route home, Mueller was intrigued by one particular set-up of boxes used for training in fire fighting. He arranged for a full tour of the facility and the current imagery is a distillation of a broad range of images he made out of the experience.
Painted and sculpted flames shoot through many of these pieces. Thickly applied colour is sometimes complemented by a line of wire or a piece of sheet metal, giving some of the work the look of stray bits of military hardware - a metallic high-tech look. The surfaces of the paintings are scumbled and overpainted into rich portrayals of acrid smoke and searing flames. Many of the works are painted on, or cut out of, aluminum, a very thin support, and sometimes paint is scraped through, exposing a shiny ground. Tar, paint and metal combine to convey the repulsive 'beauty' of toxic chemicals. Like a rainbow patch of oil on the road, pollution can look good.
There are a number of repeated images in the paintings and sculptures: open boxes (sometimes on wheels and sometimes not), smoke and flame. Other images occur only in the earlier works, for example, a wind sock and some scaffolding.
Mueller has devised a simple hinge hanging system for the paintings on aluminum, allowing the works to float several inches from the wall. The hanging device supplements the works' industrial design look and draws attention to the thinness of the support; one imagines a bizarre furniture-from-hell line in the presence of the work, a toxic furniture calculated to become more popular as the earth's air approaches the unbreathable atmosphere of Mueller's imagery.