A first glance at Thomas Müller’s works in “The Space Between,” his current exhibition with painter Felicita Norris (on view through October 21, 2023), takes in sweet, single words and nonsensical phrases that verge on kitsch but subtly shift into something darker—the futility of language. The transformation of text from print into scaled-up objects and the use of innocuous fonts combine to create a perception of language’s unstable skin. These sculptures make you work past the usual two-second pause of distracted attention—after the sweet comes an unexpected bite that adds complexity to the taste. That bite is a portion of what Müller calls “the decorative nature of text,” its mutability and weak hold on meaning.
Any word spoken or written bears truth or meaning only during a moment of agreement, in this case between reader and text. Once the context changes, once words, letters, and punctuation shift from the two-dimensionality of print (the way we generally see text) to the three-dimensionality of sculpture, words become a different, unfamiliar entity. The words that Müller transcribes into form are mainly descriptive of their own presence and do not/need not describe or define anything. They give us a thing that nominally has a name but no tangible association with the thing named; they take on a function that shifts between decoration and the suggestion of deeper meaning. The humor becomes biting in Müller’s refutation of what we culturally assume is concrete—not even making a sign of a thing, he is making something to which you can only approximately assign meaning. The act of reading becomes just an entry-level requirement for seeing these complex objects.
As is the case with all successful sculpture, considerable technical skill and physical beauty move these objects beyond the necessity of meaning. Müller aims for the surprise chance effect by exploiting the transformative nature of clay, pushing his material past the boundaries of conventional ceramic practice. In this way, his work has strong ties to that of John Cage, another practitioner of unconventional techniques and random possibilities. Like Cage, Müller means to jog the viewer’s mind out of its conventional treads into a more complex and nuanced method of reading and perceiving.
He is as fascinated with individual words as he is with seemingly mundane phrases. When he uses his cast porcelain letters for phrases such as “white whale black cat” and “skin hair blood and bones,” he transitions words from abstract concept to realistic thing, exploiting and doubling the almost-meanings. Müller reverses letters and obscures them with runny glazes and over- or under-firing. He embeds the lines of letters and punctuation back-to-back with a spongy matrix of low-fire clay between them. When this unstable sandwich is fired, textual order and alignment are obscured, distorted, or half-buried. The objects are by turns metaphorical, sinister or banal, independent of their physical form. Their detailed surfaces and placement below knee-level on the floor require the viewer to engage with both body and mind.
Language is culture, and reading is the entrée to it. These facts are foundational to Müller’s practice. His work is deeply conceptual, but its reliance on chance and materiality is counter-balanced by the starkness of the text, its physical weightiness leavened by the shine of glaze and brilliant ceramic exploitation.