Profile: Helen Mueller
I first saw Helen Mueller's work reproduced in the 1998 Silk Cut Award catalogue. The work in question consisted of 320 prints of the same image that lay one on top of another. Initially I responded to her use of multiples exhibited as one form because it challenged one of the rigid traditions of print; to exhibit one image while the edition of that image resides elsewhere.
The piece evoked an impressive sense of the labour involved in production, not solely in making the artwork but in the accumulation of information that a pile of marked paper can signify.
The patterns on each side of the form were akin to the data on bar codes or the print-out of an electrocardiogram and read as symbols yet to be deciphered. The visual effect created by the layered pattern made the form appear as if it were under compression and solid, a play against the lightness of the paper.
To translate the information held in the form by the examination of each page presented a paradox, as this would alter the integrity of the work as a three dimensional form.
With this work Mueller seems to suggest that information can be presented to bamboozle with its form rather than impress with its substance. In doing so she addresses the wider issues of veracity in information gathering and the factors that determine how it is then used.
These concerns continue to interest her and are explored further in a recent exhibition at the James Harvey Gallery, Sydney, May 1999. The work in this exhibition was a mixture of etchings from 1997 through to relief prints made in 1998.
Mueller travels to a place on the Hawkesbury River where she can focus on the movement and feel of water, and that of the day, whether it was windy or still. She speaks of water's form as the '..raw material..' with which she works and as '..the substance from which knowledge comes'. It is a process of noting down, interpreting and selecting from a changeable source.
She feels that water as subject matter allows her to work abstractly because it is constantly moving and she must draw quickly with her brush and ink to capture her impressions. For this reason Mueller prefers relief printing because of its immediacy in translating her drawings of water into a printed image
The lines of her work are always black and curved to suggest notation and movement, on white or coloured backgrounds. This maintains a sense of continuity in the work and allows for a more thorough exploration of how line in Muller's hands can evoke language and information as well as water. In some images she uses a wide brush to create a single line suggesting words, to illuminate the subject of nature. In other images a finer tool delineates a tight formation of jagged marks which represent both water and passages of script.
At times large images of curved lines are overlayed with smaller detailed images of water. This shifting of perspective disrupts the image with a different version of itself, perhaps suggesting that one perspective is being measured against another to present a more complex reality.
Mueller's background as researcher and investigator appears to inform the methods and interpretations of her work. The process is not unlike a well-structured research project; she takes notes, splits elements into categories and chooses to ignore aspects that don't fulfil the brief.
At the same time however she subverts this 'scientific method' of gathering information, which is presumed to arrive at 'truth', by rendering information as indecipherable script, bound by rules she has created.
This departure from more orthodox ways of presenting information is where Mueller defines her intentions. She is comfortable collecting information according to accepted methods but declines to present the viewer with a didactic reading of the subject.
Perhaps this stems in part from Mueller's interest in a Post Structuralist perspective which holds that there exist only constructions of the natural. Such notions mitigate against viewing nature as bound only by its own laws and instead compels an awareness of what informs our relationship to it and the potential for us to manipulate it for our own ends.
Mueller admits that she chooses to ignore water as it exists away from pristine environments, she wants it to be beautiful, to generate an aesthetic pleasure for the viewer. In doing so Mueller is presenting a view of nature that is romantic and idealised. It does not acknowledge that nature is under threat from a variety of forces, such as over-population and greed.
Implicit in Mueller's work however is the knowledge that nature is commonly defined in relation to external threats to its integrity. And perhaps when she alludes to nature's absence, while rendering its presence, she is acknowledging that it is our perceptions and actions that will determine its existence.
This approach precludes a literal reading of Mueller's work. The images convey not only renditions of nature but also a sense of musing on nature, described in Mueller's own private indecipherable script. The viewer is invited to engage with and contribute to the meaning of the image, for as much as Mueller's work possesses satisfying resolutions of form, medium and content, certain questions are intentionally left unanswered.
Artist and Lecturer in Printmedia
UWS Macarthur, SCA & COFA, Sydney