Heike Mueller
After studying art education and painting in Basel and Amsterdam, Heike Mueller continues to teach and maintain a rigorous studio and exhibition practice while building a family. Widely represented in Germany and Switzerland, Mueller has exhibited extensively in galleries and art fairs throughout Europe for the last 20 years. She now lives and works in Basel with her husband and three sons.

The Swiss artist returns to the U.S., exhibiting a series of paintings inspired by source material gathered during her recent sabbaticals in St. Petersburg. The paintings in the ‘Florida Album’ have their origin in antique photographs gathered during extended stays in the area. The bright light and fresh colors of Florida greatly influence her pallet. In addition, unlikely formal aspects of these vintage family snapshots became of interest. Damaged photographs often contained white spots and blemishes that Mueller then translated into abstraction in many of the resulting paintings. The series of “painted snapshots” captures moments of pleasure, reviving and reclaiming them into modern paintings.

written by Isabel Balzer, Ph.D.
Heike Müller is a treasure hunter. She loves to travel and collects avidly. Most often, she buys things whose ultimate use for her work is not immediately apparent. Her motives are most often inspired by seemingly innocuous findings - colorful tiles, small picture frames, bottle labels, or even that small bibliophile vintage poetry and novella books by the German publishing house Insel. Most importantly, she amasses old photographs and personal photo albums, in addition to her personal collection of photographs taken at home and during her trips.

“I find many interesting old photographs and bring them back to life. Actually, I am always in search of exciting material during our travels and at home in Switzerland. Often, I discover old prints in magazines, journals, labels and advertisements, and infuse their often diffuse, but wonderful visuality, with contemporary language and signage. For sometime now, I have been collecting vintage bibliophile books of poetry and show stories from the German publishing house Insel. These books have had custom-designed covers for over a hundred years. Here, the cover patterns were the starting points for my (over)-painting. I let myself be inspired by them and
add figurative and landscape motifs. In the past three years, more than a hundred edits have emerged.” (Heike Müller about her work, Dec. 2015)

The paintings vary in size and content and are always painted in series. Bold choices of color, a confident and bold brush stroke, and seemingly nostalgic, happy imagery characterize her work. First and foremost, beauty prevails and the message remains with the viewer. Müller likes to quote German painter Gerhard Richter. When asked about his portraits, Richter states: “Basically, my goal is to paint beautiful pictures“. Nothing more and nothing less.

But is this really true for Richter, and is beauty all we see in Müller’s work? Is this imposed detour through superficiality taking us to the crux of her work, the meaning and the message? What lies under the beautiful surface? Müller asserts that a painting is finished when it is compelling and persuasive in terms of color and form, when the viewer can find himself in it, and can relate to it. She wants to present exciting, optimistic motifs, which transmit energy and pleasure. The act of painting is, in the end, a testimony of a pleasurable process of creation. Her style is sometimes rapid; it can also be fine, elegant and subtle. Generally, her photo-based paintings seem neutral, lyrical or poetic, rather than personal and emotional.

Müller has a passion for beauty in people, objects and landscapes - from the elevated to the everyday. She is a gifted painter, a brilliant colorist and her sharp graphic sense and the simplicity of motifs form an extremely seductive union. Ultimately, her work is evidence of a new kind of popular art that bridges a gap between art and life, the personal and the private, the popular and public.

Müller investigates the relationship between original and copy and between source and painting. Her work reflects the way in which many artists traverse with ease through reproductive visual media, including photography. Exposure to an excess of images and redundant visual language is preeminent in Western societies. Müller is acutely aware of the seductive techniques of mass media that are surround the artist and her audience. Through her painting process, she delves further into this.

The artist believes in her medium, she is fascinated by the abstract power of painting. Her broad brushstrokes, and their sudden shifts function independently from her subjects. Colors play a preeminent role in her work and the color scheme is of enormous concern to her; strong and powerful colors prevail to project positive emotions and feelings. Each canvas is usually primed in a bright color to set the tone for the entire series. Colors include neon orange in the series “Scottish Orange” from 2013/14 or turquoise in her 2015 “Florida” series. In injecting the traditional technique of oil painting with a contemporary visual sensibility, old motifs are simultaneously modernized and rendered timeless.

While Heike Müller is not a perfectionist, her work is accurate and systematic. Pictorial presence and a breath of new life are injected in old photographic material by the painter’s successful rapid painterly implementation. She prefers to work allaprima – that is without underpainting/drawing and corrective layering. No retouching, wiping and correcting is permitted. It requires quick brush strokes and does not allow for a lengthy process of choosing and correcting of colors. Müller deconstructs her motives using only painterly techniques.

Her “Florida” series is based on multiple sources. She uses her own visual materials, which she took and gathered during a sabbatical in Western Florida with her family in 2015. In addition, she bought and collected old photographs from vintage stores in the US. There are architectural motives, random snap shots of people, gardens, cars, as well as film stills. This, in itself, is not unusual: many artists work with photographic materials. But Müller does not shy away from damaged photos. These are photographs that possess a history on their own.

When working with damaged material from Florida, the final painting includes the damaged areas; those areas, seemingly randomly painted white are visible and compromise the inconsequential reception of the viewer.

Müller’s paintings after old photographic albums intercept the discourse of the poetic and the pragmatic. At first sight, the stories are hidden – a seemingly archivist interest motivates her gaze. The artist works with photographs of topographies, which can, but do not have to, be of personal importance. Meaning and illustration stand in a dialectic relationship to each other and one fails to attach an easily readable narrative.

The dichotomy between personal and public is erased, and the work always projects the tension between injected emotions and atmosphere. The viewer is left wondering about where she uses personal photographs or found materials from flea markets and used bookstores. This is especially poignant in her current work of, mostly, people from the mid-twentieth century. She uses photo albums from thrift stores to - almost voyeuristically - tell intimate stories of strangers – be it individuals,
families or friends.

Here, her rapidly painted works lay between emotional depth and pictorial realism, abstract and representational color systems, experiment and tradition. Müller daringly penetrates completely new terrain. At first glance, the work looks straightforward, and to a certain extent, traditional, but Müller captures a complexity of reality by simultaneously representing feelings and perspectives from a bygone era.