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Engineering Art


Engineering Art

Compound Butter

We visited our recently relocated friend Chris Mueller in his new studio in the hills of Laurel Canyon. His move from San Francisco to Los Angeles is one of many recent transitions, including his move from the world of computer engineering to fine art. Joining him in this beautiful new space, we picked his brain about the connections between engineering, topography, art and everything in between.

Compound Butter: At what point did you start to consider yourself an artist or feel that you wanted to be producing art? Was it a conscious decision or something you realized had been happening over a period of time?

Chris Mueller: I think I’ve always thought of myself as an artist. I always enjoyed drawing when I was young. I liked drawing superheros and mechanical devices and architectural plans for buildings. For many years, I thought I’d be an architect. I studied art in high school and earned a degree in art (with a focus on painting) in undergrad. More recently, I’d focused on tech for nearly a decade of my professional life, and realized I was missing out on my passion for art. My wife encouraged me to find a studio a couple years ago, and now here we are.

How has your background in engineering/computer science influenced how you approach art and your work? Do you see a strong relationship between the two?

Yes, there is a very strong relationship there. The creative process is remarkably similar, even if the media are different. In both cases you’re starting with an empty canvas or an empty screen, and it is purely the motivation of the artist/programmer to craft structure and something out of that nothingness. In both cases you’re trying to solve a problem with a particular kind of communication. Both involve formal theory and rely on techniques of abstraction. One difference I see between the fields right now is just how young computer science is. Artists can look back at millenia of work for inspiration, technique, and solutions to problems; computer scientists have only about a century of history to look at.  Paul Graham, one of the most prominent voices in Silicon Valley, wrote an essay called Hackers and Painters that addresses parts of this question directly—it’s a good read. 

Do you feel your background has helped you look at and approach art in a different way than most artists?

I’m not sure. I certainly don’t know “most” artists. I think what a computer scientist’s perspective can provide is a strong understanding of how things work. When I look at art, I try to first appreciate it at its face-value, but I always like to get up close to see how it is produced. A computer scientist is also always looking for patterns among similar algorithms or pieces of data in order to abstract and unify those similar things. I think this habit of looking for patterns has helped me appreciate historical influences among artists—it becomes habit to try and trace ideas from artist to artist and object to object through the ages.

You have done multiple projects merging your experience with programming and fine art, what do you think about that nexus between art and technology? Is there a line that exists between gallery art and say product or interface design?

That’s an interesting question. I think the art world has a complicated relationship with the gallery, and there is a lot of relevant and wonderful art being made by people all over the world that’s not part of the traditional gallery/art scene. I’m of the mindset that making art is a very primitive and human reaction to the world, so we see art happening all over the place. Just last week I found a guy on Twitter who writes Twitter bots that display emoji scenes of trains traveling across fantasy emoji landscapes. It’s just brilliant. I doubt this will ever be in an art gallery, but it’s certainly art, and brings something to that particular community.

As for interface design: software interfaces are often in a constant state of flux, which makes them an interesting kind of chimeric art. Many interface designers, like many artists, copy what works from somewhere else to get their job done and move on. But there are some designers who can really elevate design to something delightful, and the art world has taken note of the industrial design heavyweights Braun and Apple, for example. Is this art? Sure, absolutely. Software interfaces are harder to pin down, but you might argue that any number of websites or applications, like the original Mosaic browser, are works of art both visually and functionally. In this way technology is often more akin to architecture than pure visual art.

Artists and galleries frequently wrestle with where the boundaries of the art world should be drawn, and this is a healthy exercise for that community. In the meantime, a lot of non-traditional artists are out there making great things and our world is better for it.

What caused you to leave your previous career and decide to pursue your MFA? Do you have any advice for those looking to change careers and follow their passion?

Well, this is a tricky question. We live in the age of authenticity and self-expression when pursuing one’s passion is often raised as a kind of holy quest. So I want to say “go for it!” but the reality is that we also live in an age where money can be helpful to do all those other things that are important in life, like traveling, seeing family, paying for healthcare, and so on. When I asked people for advice on this topic, a lot of them told me to keep programming to pay the bills. That turned out to be good advice for me, but everyone’s situation is different. I do know that when you are young it’s easier to take risks. When I was in my 20s I took a lot of risk, and am grateful I did. Now that I’m in my 30s I’m more careful about the risks I take, and I have a partner to consider things with, so we take things a little more cautiously than I would have ten years ago.

You recently temporarily relocated to Los Angeles from San Francisco, has the change in environment been a strong inspiration for your new work? How do you feel space and place influences your process in terms of your previous and current location?

I love both San Francisco and Los Angeles. They are wonderful cities, and both are lucky to be close to the other—there is a healthy dialogue happening between the two cultures. My time in LA has given me up-close access to the communities and art of LA, which has been really great. My work is also strongly influenced by geography and topography, so getting to know the landscape of LA has been important. I go on a lot of hikes to get up high and understand how everything fits together. I’ve started making consistently bigger pieces, too. LA feels like it has so much space, you just want to spread out and make big things.

Who are some of your favorite artists, and do they influence your own work at all?

In undergrad, my professors made sure I saw a lot of Richard Diebenkorn, Willem de Kooning, and Andy Goldsworthy. I’m very grateful for that exposure, and I feel like all of their work exerts a heavy influence on what I do. More recently, I’ve come to appreciate Brice Marden, Julie Mehretu, and Ellsworth Kelly. I especially love reading Gary Snyder’s translation of the Cold Mountain poems while looking at Marden’s paintings—there’s a lot happening there.

Your work often seems to be inspired by environments, terrain, etc. What attracts you to this subject, and how is your approach different than most landscape painters?

My appreciation for landscape first came from my parents. They’re both from farming families, so we spent a lot of time on farms or in the garden, and our vacations always targeted geological destinations like the Great Lakes or the Grand Canyon. As I got older, I realized more and more how geography is so fundamental to all of culture and history. Jared Diamond argues this quite effectively I think in Guns, Germs, and Steel. And for me personally, I feel lost if I don’t understand the land and my relationship to it—it’s a big part of how I shape memory.

There was an era of landscape painting where the concept of “nature” was a sublime, wild, primal force. While I love many of those paintings, I strongly disagree with the thesis that “nature” is something outside of “civilization”. Humans and cities are as natural as anything else; they are, if anything, magnifications and amplifications of processes we see everywhere in the cosmos. This unification of “natural” and “civilized” doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t assume all human activity is morally good nor amoral. On the contrary, if we see civilization as integrated with those larger systems, then we easily find moral cause in caring for the entirety of those systems. My work tries to embrace this unity of experience, and considers humans as intimately involved actors within so-called natural forces, not outside observers or conquerors of a pristine, wild natural world.

What is the reaction you would like someone to have when looking at one of your pieces? Or, what exactly are you trying to convey and communicate with your work?

This is a tough question. I usually like to think of my work more as poetry than essay. Everyone comes to the work with their own history and perspective, so everyone will get something different out of it. I hope that people experience a kind of distinct impression, a tickling of the mind, perhaps, and hopefully some kind of new perspective they can carry with them into other parts of their lives.

What are the things that most inspire you, or where do you go to gather inspiration?

Going on a long walk in the woods never fails to bring me inspiration. When I’m in San Francisco I love hiking on Mt. Tamalpais.

What are your plans for the future? What and where would you like to be creating?

My plans seem to always be a little up in the air, and I suppose that’s the fun of it. I’d certainly like to keep painting and I hope to continue programming too. Beyond that, we’ll just have to wait and see how it all works out.

See more of Chris's work on his website

Photography by Jessie Nicely