Because of MOCA’s Alan Kaprow revival-style exhibition this Spring, everyone seems caught up in the decades old zeitgeist of happenings and treating art as life. Droves of young artists are making good re-imagining seminal projects of his, using pastiche as a cultural resuscitator ultimately to market a canonized artist’s new museum show. While this excitement is all fine and good, the whole movement still reminds me of a rehash of too much of contemporary art history classes, a wax museum with a faint pulse. On the other hand, Lilli Muller is a self-anointed Downtown Queen, a disciple of Louise Bourgeois, an ex-member of that post-hippie Laguna scene, and spending some time in her live/work space gave me a stronger, more tangible example of living in/through/around art.
The first thing you need to know about Lilli Muller is that her art does not wait for a gallery or museum. Her loft space is tidily crammed with art, wall space covered in pieces of all sorts from the past several decades, human-shaped sculptures orgiastically stacked in surprisingly non-offensive flesh towers. As it should be, Lilli believes that an artist should make art regardless if he/she has a formal space to put it. “You can’t make art only when you have a place to show….it’s ridiculous,” the artist proudly claims. As your average artist these days is certainly more marketing-savvy than ever, Muller’s perspective on art production rings refreshing in a climate where artists are more business-minded than ever.
Tea Time with Louise Bourgeois
Unfortunately, most of us are not born with such confidence and conviction and have to earn opportunity, respect, and a disciplined approach over a lifetime. Muller was raised in Coburg, Germany, an “East German no man’s land,” within earshot of the Iron Curtain. She studied at the Kunstakademie before eventually moving to the States in 1980, fleeing a problematic region still a decade removed from reinvention.
It was then that Muller became aware of Louise Bourgeois, an artist then on the cusp of international acclaim and legend status. Muller appreciated Bourgeois’ interdependence of artistic vision and personal character. In a way, Muller saw a geriatric version of herself in the elderly Bourgeois. Muller reflects, “It was like reading about myself as a ninety year old.” Like any good fanboy, Muller eventually tracked down Bourgeois and insisted on meeting her, and she flew all the way to Europe to have tea and show the future mentor her work.
Again, though, approaching Bourgeois was not as easy as that. Muller arrived, nervous, pacing around with her portfolio, not even knowing what she would say. Muller imagined being interrogated with questions like “Who are you? Why do you think I’d want to meet you? What do you want from me?” and she inhaled five pounds of bananas because she would frequently hyperventilate. Sensing the young artist’s apparent anxiety, Bourgeois insisted that she “go outside and talk to the birds” while she reviewed Muller’s portfolio. After the initially awkward blind date, Muller and Bourgeois became fast friends, and Muller goes back at least once a year for tea, which has grown into up to a dozen accomplished international artists gathering informally to play show and tell with their artwork.
During the decade that refuses to go quietly into that good night, Muller spent the ‘80s in wild fashion and sandwiched herself into a very radical clique of hippies that were growing up, kind of. The twenty-something artist added an extra D to her repertoire when she moved to Laguna Beach, shifting from two dimensional work to three dimensional. Muller “hooked up with the old time hippies from the old days like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters…that lived all up on the hill.” Like our modern revivalists, Muller and company were involved in regular happenings of the Dionysian sort. She “used to stage [them] three days, nonstop, 24-7. Bring booze. Bring art materials. Friday night through Sunday night.” She still has eight years of footage of these events that she is in the middle of editing.
It was then that the artist started to experiment with taking casts of the human body, a form she is still exploring today. During these art events, Muller remembers, “people got naked for the cast. Whoever shows up gets naked. I have footage of these naked girls with paint and plaster hanging all over themselves, practicing their standup comedy routine….there was a painter who thought he was Yves Klein, with naked guys and girls rolling over the canvas, then showering in order to model for me. It was nonstop. Lots of wine. Lots of Vaseline.”
Bringing Up Baby
Eventually, however, this bohemian party in the middle of conservative California grew tiresome for Muller. Put simply, Muller vents, “If I see one more seashell, one more crashing wave, one more fucking seagull….I can’t take it….sunsets….ugh.” She is not talking about getting bored with sunsets, because everyone loves sunsets, just not in art. After a decade she had to ask herself, “Where do we go from there?”, and the quick answer was Downtown LA.
Because of her European rearing, Lilli was attracted to downtown’s texture and relatively richer history versus, for example, Irvine. The population here is clearly more diverse, too, a one-stop shop for all your ethnic diversity. Muller finds comfort in the fact that “you have every culture you need in a five mile radius.” It was in downtown during the ‘90s that Muller seemed to evolve into a disciplined, confident, and community-oriented artistic leader.
The major catalyst for her artistic maturity was forced when she gave birth to her daughter, now a talented teen enrolled at performing arts high school. Lilli reflects, “My daughter saved my life in that I wouldn’t go off the deep end.” Further, Lilli had to raise her daughter as a single mother, making the demands of balancing career and motherhood even more difficult. Maybe it is the German in her or the fact that she did not have a choice but to rear her daughter along, but, regardless, Lilli grew into a disciplined but still playful and improvisational adult. She had to use every nugget of spare time wisely, doing forty-five minutes of research here, squeezing in a quick layer of plaster there, using every possible opportunity to make art and stretch the aesthetic muscles. Muller still spends at least an hour a day, no matter what, producing artwork in some form or another. And while many artists claim to always be making art, I actually believe her because I’ve seen her loft.
The Queen Steps Down
Muller has spent the last decade exhibiting work in many environments and contexts, all over downtown and Southern California. Her work was featured twice in the Autumn Lights Installation as well as MOCA, and she often finds herself in the role of curator for special projects. She finds it essential for artists or anyone for that matter to participate in “two or three little projects a year for the community.” Especially with the interaction boundary native to our Angeleno car culture, artists with such intentions are invaluable, forcing a community to interact with itself.
However, she has exhausted a lot of her sweat equity and needs to take a break from all the coordinating, fundraising, and art-related-activities-that-aren’t-really-art-making. Muller’s craving to go back into full swing production mode is forcing her to step back from the scene and hole up again for a while. She plans to move to Berlin, a thriving beacon for all the creatives out there, when her daughter departs for college in a few years. In the meantime, she is constantly creating, working on several ambitious projects simultaneously.
While details of exhibition place and time for most of these endeavors have not fully solidified, it doesn’t matter. It never has. If all the museums and galleries in town suddenly closed their doors, she would not bat so much as an eyelash. Instead, Muller forges ahead with the cool confidence of a tank. Next stop? Berlin.