No, no one spiked your drink before you walked into the gallery – that’s just Philip Mueller’s wacky work. This Viennese artist’s first solo exhibition has left the Dubai art crowd baffled. Young yet extremely mature, creative and culturally challenging, he possesses that rare range of talent and uninhibited bravery (perhaps gained during his year as an apprentice to bold Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch) that is the key to artistic success.
Raised in Vienna and currently studying at the University of Applied Art in his native city, his vivid, symbol-filled works may appear accidental, but there is a clear narrative thread: every one referencing a predecessor.
Mueller frequently combines an eclectic mix of religious and pagan iconography. In one painting, he creates his own twisted vision of a what a son of the Pagan Dionysus and Christian Jesus would look like: a beast-like centaur posing in a classic Greek manner, seemingly unaware of a waterfall of blood gushing from his abdomen. However, this startling scene almost risks passing unnoticed, engulfed in an overwhelmingly psychedelic forest. What does this all mean? Who knows, but trying to figure it out is a fascinating process.
In another painting, called ‘Agave and Pentheus’, he depicts an interesting version of the Greek myth in which Agave mistakes her son, Pentheus for a wild beast hiding in the bushes, and begins to rip his limbs apart, killing him. Mueller imagines the face of Pentheus as a monkey’s, outlining his body with a faint pink line. His fingers become entangled roots, and leaves of a tree partially hide him. Next to him stands his mother, an arrogant murderer, but she’s given a modern twist: she’s wearing a ’20s style black dress and is wrapped in a fur coat.
The characters of Mueller’s paintings are intertwined throughout his body of work: a glorious mess of symbolism. We inevitably begin to wonder if it’s really a 23-year-old behind these compositions. Historical timeframes are demolished, and past and present eras have a chance to run parallel in the artist’s eccentric mind, where, seemingly, anything goes. ‘This is my world, one in which all of these characters and philosophies coexist,’ Mueller reveals, in a characteristically cryptic fashion.
Along with the divine, another common thread is the animal kingdom; monkeys and owls appear throughout, but with every work they become more complex characters with more to say. The artist explains these characters come to him in revelations during surreal moments. And the stories of the characters don’t just stop on the canvas – they are also brought to life by the artist in his doll-like installations. Textiles of different colours and surfaces, feathers, earrings, rubber gloves, various collected gadgets (the list goes on) are thrown into chaotic, almost frightening figures that have their own distinct personalities. This is where the paintings become concrete, with each sculpture having its own scent, sound (through an embedded speaker that activates upon touch) and texture.
The beauty of Philip’s work lies in the way it leads us into a game of deciphering codes, in the complex juxtaposition of meanings and symbols that can only be unfolded by an observant eye. And so we finally pose the crucial question: when he’s creating, what runs through his mind? ‘It’s meditation,’ he explains. ‘In the best case, I’m thinking about nothing.’
‘Eat When You Can, Sleep When You Can’ continues at Carbon 12 until March 8.