The last time that American artist Dave Muller was in Tokyo he supported the band Destroy All Monsters for their Japan tour in 1996.
Named after the 1968 Japanese film of the same name, the band formed in 1973 with artists Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, filmmaker Cary Loren and lead vocalist Lynn Rovner at its core. Noticeable appearances by Roger Miller from Mission of Burma, Ron Asheton from The Stooges and MC5’s Michael Davis fuelled changes in Destroy All Monsters, both in sound and approach, and after a period of turmoil they eventually broke up in 1985. Much later, with the encouragement of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a box set of the band’s under-played and under-listened recordings was released in 1994, which gave them a whole new audience aware only of their sound through college radio.
As an artist himself, Muller’s own work is an interpretation of Mike Kelley’s independence, deeply influenced by days spent watching him find different ways to realize motivations, which seemingly came from everywhere and always with a sense of purpose. To paraphrase Muller, you simply must learn whatever you need to know in order to get the job done. He also worked as the elder artist’s studio assistant, beginning from around the time of Kelley’s “Educational Complex” (1995), a series comprised of architectural models of every school that Kelley attended and all the houses that he’s ever lived in, selectively reconstructed from his own memory. Kelley’s self-perpetuating motivation founded Muller’s understanding of conceptual art as the “art of doing.” This trickles through all of Muller’s work in one way or another, from his ongoing “Top Ten” series (paintings of record-album spines as portraits, based on an individual’s actual or imagined musical preference) all the way to his current show at Blum & Poe in Tokyo, which partly reimagines the interior view of the newly opened gallery, while accompanying the generosity of its fifth-floor view with music that he grew up listening to.
“Sublime Memory Garden” is a show of several different intentions wrapped into one. It’s a wander through Muller’s musical tastes and preoccupations. It’s also an edited slice of musical history. The gallery walls are painted with botanical scenes of various plant life, along with a diagram borrowed from the 1977 book Rock ’N ’Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry. The diagram begins at 1954 and continues up to 1975. In his version, Muller extends this timeline beyond 2040, while digging up and reworking some of the history indicated on the original diagram. Meanwhile, album covers reworked by the artist have been hung on top of the botanic murals to give new and ambiguous meaning to the timeline running underneath them. If not for this summer’s outbreak of Dengue fever in Tokyo, which temporarily closed the nearby Yoyogi Park, more of the local wildlife would have definitely crept in to Muller’s installation.
“Sublime Memory Garden” looks at ways of measuring individual personality and what that measurement ultimately means. Muller creates a sort of “field” painting; an exploration of boundaries between objects and elements, which obscures as much as formulates a portrait of his subjects that are as evocative as they are complicated. In his collage-like paintings, things are broken apart and put back together again, a process that is best represented in the color charts left along the edge of his canvas, which shows every color used in each of the paintings. The elements that make up this mix, such as intentional drip marks and vinyl lettering, all show a sense of precision in an otherwise overgrown chaotic “garden.” Like songs mixed from different musical genres, it is the blend between these elements in Muller’s works that is interesting and not the fact that they were mixed in the first place.
Installation view of “Dave Muller: Sublime Memory Garden” at Blum & Poe, Tokyo, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles.
Memory becomes Muller’s way of exploring and even reworking some of his own musical past with the present (he currently plays the trumpet in a brass band). The exhibition is backed by a soundtrack that populates the gallery with spoken-word pieces, Norwegian folk music and pop songs taken from the collection of his children, with little regard for how they sound together.
One crucial element that is not overlooked is how the show introduces Blum & Poe to Tokyo as the first American contemporary art gallery to open a space in the city. Not only creating a home-away-from-home for the gallery’s LA-based artists, the new branch and its inaugural show also express the gallery’s desire to make a fertile research base where talent closer to home is equally welcome.
With the ideas of “Sublime Memory Garden” and the intent of the gallery are neatly entwined, the immediate vicinity of the exhibitionis reimagined to make use of the cultural opportunity that Tokyo provides. Given how eclectic and visceral the city is, Muller’s variegated garden makes perfect sense.