Fall in Los Angeles is something of a paradox. The heat breaks, sure, though wearingly late in the year, returning for second and third encores even as the first rains of the season turn the scorched hills to a striking emerald, far removed from the auburn palette elsewhere familiar. In the art world, it's a time when the often meandering group shows of summer give way to solo show-stoppers, a sense of renewed focus going hand-in-hand with a rekindled drive to impress.
It's in this climate that Dave Muller's new show at Blum & Poe, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, comes off as particularly vexing, given works like its series of impressively-rendered Beatle portraits, Starry Eyes (J,P,G,R), 2012, which seem so calculatedly likeable in terms of technique and topic as to court, and even pay tribute to, the same bland mainstream taste they at least address.
In particular, the relationship between this exhibition and the artist's previous work is hard to parse. Muller's paintings of records began as an incursion of autobiographical material into a body of work previously focused on other artists' show announcements, but his subjects here, which include a 45 of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (A Beatle in Mercury's Clothing, 2012), are too popular to reveal much about any particular person's taste.
Individuality is even specifically effaced in the aforementioned work, where a mismatched sleeve suggests a human presence only inasmuch as it shows that whoever once owned it was a consumer of other music. Muller builds on this irony, turning away from his prior use of records as a means of oblique portraiture, through the playful personification in the piece's title. The eponymous Beatle, hardly a Beatle at all, wears an in-quotes garment made for a jazz label, Mercury, whose name now seems to allude to the idea of art as an alchemical process in a deflating way. Its prominently featured slogan, “music for every mood,” likewise functions in context as a kind of announcement and parody of the quintessentially Pop concept of universal communication. Taken together, all of these factors amplify the impression of cynical unease.
This is driven home in the show's most anti-nostalgic feature. Throughout the galleries, Apple computers hooked up to speakers and tacky flatscreens blare a randomized catalogue of the top 100 hits from 1969 to 1972. In addition to being an eyesore, visually interrupting the exhibition's flow, one quickly realizes that much of the music one hears has been forgotten for a reason. The impersonal effect this creates is a perversely apt foil for works that seem designed to be easy to enjoy but hard to care about.
Yet this irritating experience draws one's attention to the show's underlying narrative, which has to do with technology. In the final room, each Beatle is represented by a solo 45 in a black sleeve, arranged around a pile of three massively oversized reproductions of Yoko Ono's Fly on 8-track. The immediate interpretation is unflattering. The boring idea that Yoko Ono was responsible for the Beatles' break-up is expanded into a formal conflict between the wall works, which seem to be in symbolic mourning for the decline of their format, and the sculptural piece, representing the ascendancy of a form of physical media derided by vinyl connoisseurs.
On the other hand, the 8-tracks' stark black-and-white covers also look something like punk rock, a genuine affront to a culture whose mainstream has earlier, in a painting of a button bearing the legend “McDonald's Salutes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,” established its adeptness at corralling radicalism into market logic. That the rise of the underground is figured through the show's sole representation of a musical work by a woman clinches its otherness, marking both an endpoint and a rupture in Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah's tightly controlled narrative. As such, it forms the crux of the exhibition's strength, which has less to do with any particular work taken in isolation than in the way their combination corrodes their surface obviousness into a heavy engagement with the relationship between culture and history-making.
(Image on top: Dave Muller, What Today Sounds Like (Circa 1965), 2012, Acrylic on paper , 72 x 66 inches paper size; Courtesy of the Artist and Blum & Poe.)