Recently, a girl of about six years old came tearing through the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s third-floor Dolly Fiterman Gallery, hollering, “Woah! This is cool!” It should be noted that the third-floor Dolly Fiterman gallery is normally stocked with the odd Kliun or Mattise, works of Fauvism and French Cubism, Cubo-Futurism and Picasso-laced Epstein. In other words, stuff no typical six-year-old would find cool. But this particular exhibition was not typical, the one that spurred the first-grader. This was Dave Muller’s Now Where Were We?
A three-gallery reinstallation of artwork culled from Mia’s collections, the immersive show is distinguished by Muller’s curatorial eye and by the artist’s hand-painted murals spanning floor to ceiling throughout—divided by gallery into the approximate categories of people/places/things. The background color is not the default apparitional white, but a bleeding wash of cartoon blue.
“If you go from one museum to another museum, you’re not going to see that much difference,” Los Angeles-based Muller says. “There’s this idea of a history and it’s broken up into all sorts of different branches. Each of the branches is broken up into academic disciplines that you become a specialist in. I don’t know what specialty I’m in…I’m just looking at it in a different way. Maybe my way is just my id, and what kind of things get me excited.”
Visitors are invited to find connections and common themes among Muller’s murals and the proximate archival works. He’s painted an enormous disco ball above Thiebaud’s Gumball Machine (1970). Between the rural highways of D’Arcangelo’s Minnesota Morning (1978) and Leslie’s Location Shooting (1977-1990), a sign reads NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING. All of Muller’s paintings are titled and dated—from Hockey pucks, 2013 to Moon, 4.5 billion years BCE.
Muller’s work has long served to elevate the mundane, to engage with the ordinary objects and experiences that define our lives on the ground level. He’s well-known for his “Top Ten” paintings of record spines (Peter Gabriel’s Us, They Might Be Giants’ Lincoln, Julie London’s Love on the Rocks, et al.), and one such record-spine painting adorns an alcove in Now Where Were We?, where a selection of Muller’s favorite music plays.
The overarching effect here is something like swinging by a friend’s house, where objects ranging from fine art (Yoshida Fujio’s woodblock Flowering Kale over the mantel, say, Chuck Close’s famous Frank in the foyer, and various priceless masks of wood and copper and horsehair dotting the upstairs hallway) to beloved toys are arrayed in a familiar, intimate way. “I tried to come up with connections and things that I felt I say,” Mullers says, “rather than what someone else tells me I’m supposed to see.”
Muller, who took about four weeks to install the show at the end of 2016, says he thought carefully about the precise arrangement and proportion of his own paintings with respect to the pieces he chose.
“I thought a lot about how what I was going to draw was going to get covered up by some things, and interact with other things,” he says. “There was a complex calculus…it’s really weird to think, okay, you’ve got a flat object that’s very powerful. You’ve got a lot of other objects that have their own power because they’re three-dimensional. How do you work out a way that has them all play on some sort of level playing field?”
Even so, traditionalists may find themselves affronted by the way some pieces—Alberto Giacometti’s Diego (1952), for example—are dwarfed by Muller’s towering paintings. It’s irreverent compared to the blank-wall approach, but it inspires a different kind of engagement with the work.
“I like things that have some kind of attraction on a lot of levels,” says Muller. “I’d like there to be an intellectual level, but I don’t see why that should shut down any other kind of thing. I’d be just as excited, on a visual level, about someone like Michael Asher as I would be about someone like Paul Klee or Giacometti.”
When he first started planning the exhibit, according to Muller, “I had no idea what I was going to put up on the walls. It’s not exciting for me if I’m just rotely putting something together—I’ve got to get my ya-yas out.”
Muller praises Mia’s staff for their flexibility and patience in bringing pieces out, in turn, for him to consider as he drew—since obviously the artifacts couldn’t be on the wall as he worked. “The institution was agile,” he says, “which is very impressive for such a large institution.”
Finally, when regaled with the six-year-old-girl anecdote, Muller laughs. “My inner child would hopefully feel that way too.”