Historical Journal


Matt Mullican

September 14, 1988
Dan Cameron

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Within a contemporary panorama of activity which is characterized mostly by issues and movements, the art of Matt Mullican occupies a unique position. In part because they grant no quarter to any doctrine of art-making which isolates aesthetic criteria from their basis in subjective human experience, Mullican’s works appear, somewhat paradoxically, to be hermetic, detached from the pulse of life. This curiosity stems in large degree from the fact that, as more or less rigorous observers of art, we are all too accustomed to transposing theoretical artistic criteria onto personalized scenarios of intention and desire. The experience of art requires that we unite the ‘other’ with ourselves, that we remove our attention from the daily round of anxiety and indecision, and turn instead to the experience of life as an idealization or abstraction of certain underlying principles, whether or not this is the manner in which we perceive its impact upon our lives.
Matt Mullican’s art does not, however, return us to mundaneness. On the contrary, it is about quantifying what we know in the way that we know it, and deducing the nature of our awareness from the cognitive particulars which link us to our environment. This does not mean that his images depict the morning toast and an easy chair, or anything quite so abstract as love and/or beauty. But Mullican has, to take an example, created representations of “heaven” which are based not on the theological construct of eternal life as on the definable human need for metaphysical resolution to a life which is maddeningly finite. “Heaven” is not something whose existence needs to be proven or demonstrated by faith, but rather a mental construction which fulfills a given purpose that is no less real to skeptics as it is to true believers. You can subscribe to the idea of heaven and still comprehend why mankind would need to invent such a thing, just as you can be an atheist and remain capable of presenting a careful elucidation of what heaven means to everybody else.
For artists, questions of infinity bear particular import, for art is created partly in order to be preserved, so that future civilizations can look back and comprehend that we as a people thought about something other than the fleeting moment. If one was to believe completely that the world would end next week, or that the world might continue but that society would sooner or later begin systematically destroying the artifacts left behind by our age, it would become difficult to stir up much incentive for creating art. Even after one has embraced Duchamp’s principle that works of art perish after their time is over, one is hard-pressed to explain why artists continue to produce art in a well-constructed manner out of lasting materials, as if acting from a belief that they would last forever. Thus, belief in a relative or qualified permanence is inseparable from the activity of making art.
In Mullican’s case, this type of speculation inspires the artist to turn towards the human animal in almost clinical fashion, and to isolate and analyze those linguistic constructs which man has invested with meaning over the course of time. From the mid ’70’s until about three years ago, Mullican’s art-making activity focused largely on the creation and gathering together of a seemingly endless vocabulary of single pictographic or emblem-like images, which he calls his “‘signs,” each corresponding to an aspect of either human self-consciousness or world-consciousness, beginning with the contemplation of the universe and extending to the concrete particulars of science, the arts and philosophy. His range of interest could in fact be said to encompass the entire domain of acquired knowledge. Of all the criteria which Mullican has used in this gathering process, perhaps the most important are universality and legibility, in that his images become as clear from an ethnographic point of view as they are aesthetically resolved. This clarity indicates that the artist aspires to have his work take as its point of reference all possible awareness in every corner of the globe, not to be restricted to the limitations of Soho, the eastern United States, the 1980s. At the same time, however, Mullican’s art is specifically about his world, his thought-pictures, his internal construction of what the material world means. Obviously, he cannot range outside of his own experience without then making it a part of his experience. Thus, instead of only developing a personal artistic language which reveals the condition of his existence, Mullican has simultaneously produced a meta-language which is capable of depicting the very cultural conditions which led to its having been developed in the first place, including a vast majority of factors which are part of the experience of nearly every person who encounters his art.
But how does Mullican return us to subjective experience, if his initial procedure is so hyper-rational? This gets us to the core of meaning in his work, and is thus not an easy question to answer. To begin with, it is crucial to understand that Mullican’s accumulation of imagesigns began as an attempt to order the entire world according to the subject’s perception of it, not just as a project concerned with gathering random information. Also, we should understand that because these signs are connected to the subject’s initial awareness of the self as a participant within a social order, there is not necessarily any distinction to be made between those things which are real and those which are not – i.e., only imagined. Yet eventually the human mind makes some effort to sort and arrange the various types of information it receives, and a hierarchy of meaning is created. Mullican simulates this procedure by his development of a cosmology of meaning according to different levels of awareness. In other words, his “signs” take up their respective places according to whether they relate to the self subjectively (“the arts”) or objectively (“the elements”), in terms of their relative distance from the subject’s perceptual reality (concrete things rest below symbolic things, which are located in turn beneath “the unknowable”), and in terms of correspondences between different- categories of signs.
Thus, Mullican’s art serves as an exegesis of the system of human consciousness which brings all art into being. If it appears that he has followed a circuitous route to arrive at this point, the viewer should be reminded that not for a moment has Mullican strayed from the realm of things which can be imagined, suspected or experienced on some intuitive level by almost anybody. In a curious way, the perspective which he achieves through his art is both one of the most personal and yet universal of contemporary art practices. It recalls monastic systems of knowledge as well as metaphysicians like Spinoza who built entire philosophies from the single observation that they were alive. In Mullican’s world, having created a self-sufficient system of awareness is akin to really noticing that one has been alive all along.
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