In his recent solo exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg, Stephen Mueller seemed intent on making sure that his viewers left the gallery in a state of optical bliss. Mueller, who has shown regularly since the early ’70s, is known for paintings that combine a palpable sense of light with varying sets of enigmatic shapes reminiscent of Buddhist stupas or temple embellishments. Dazzling spatial effects, created by placing static, opaque silhou ettes over diffuse, stained grounds, are among the wonderments of his work.
“Stephen Mueller: New Paintings” included 10 easelsize canvases and five small watercolors, all produced in 2010. In them, Mueller continues to mine the dialectic of flat color and atmospheric light, but the aura of exotic inscrutabil ity has been replaced with a heightened sense of exuberance and clarity. More than ever, Mueller uses the underlying white surface of canvas to create his light, controlling the luminosity of color through methodical, gradated washes of transpar ent paint instead of freeform staining. The glowing, “trippy” ambience in these pictures brings to mind airbrushed or screenprinted psychedelic posters even though the effect is handwrought.
In another shift, Mueller’s elaborate, Buddhistinspired figures have been streamlined into circles, ovals, fans and graphic renderings of light beams, which overflow with visual puns and associations. A painting such as Jacinto might be read as a contemporary restaging of Japonisme. In a candycolored landscape, the Rising Sun pushes little anime lozenges up toward a chubby gray cloud. Yet all five radiant works on paper speak directly to Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, Arthur Dove and other American transcendental modern ists. In Shu, Mueller goes all the way back to the Renaissance and composes the picture as a stage, complete with abstract proscenium, curtains, footlights and a “cast” of floating ciphers.
Because he belongs to the generation that essentially reinvented American abstract painting in the 1970s and ’80s (along with Mary Heilmann, Jonathan Lasker, Elizabeth Murray, Thomas Nozkowski and Gary Stephan, to name but a few), one might view Mueller’s compelling synthesis of Asian iconography and electric color as a reaction to the supersize, selfserious gestures of Abstract Expressionism. What differentiates Mueller from his peers is his ability to create intimate work without insisting on the presence of his own signifying “mark.” In so doing, he leaves us with an exquisite offering of visceral pleasure on which to meditate.
Photo: Stephen Mueller: Jacinto, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 by 50 inches; at Lennon, Weinberg.