New York

Matt Mullican

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

You might say that Matt Mullican intends to demonstrate the difference between mystic and mystique, and in so doing to produce a literal declension of history’s passage through various Weltanschauungs. First we have primitively rendered drawings that look like woodcuts, particularly Wassily Kandinsky woodcuts, even though they are paint on paper. They are depictions of a cosmology: a flattened-out hemisphere with a triple-faced fate/god astride the top curve, a skeleton bridging hellish flames at the bottom, and symbols of the world in the middle. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place, the home in the center, tidily surrounded by country, city, the senses, the emotions, a nakedly archaic world view whose contemporary inadequacy deflects (not without nostalgic longing for) the possibility of the visionary, of which Kandinsky is a representative.

Next we have five abstract drawings. Having come across the “woodcuts” before or after this encounter, we eventually resolve these into expanded fragments (like Brauntuch’s) of the other entries. Ours is Gulliver’s view of the Brobdingnagians, all pore and grain. It’s also a world view with the human figure at the center—albeit one of those figures may be a fly-catching Beelzebub—a concept initiated during the Renaissance, a fact of which Mullican takes cognizance by suggesting Leonardo’s circled man in the heart of one of the cosmologies. As a gloss on abstraction these blowups replace (not without nostalgic longing for) the original spiritualist notion of abstraction as an essence (Kasimir Malevich said he saw the face of God in his black square) with a notion of abstraction as a derivation. While of old the question “What is it supposed to represent?” was totally wrongheaded, here it is the only one to be asked, and inquiry stops with the answer: it is a piece of something seen earlier, something objective.

Finally there are the signs, two rows of images conventionalized in the manner of international symbols, those bathroom markers that have replaced myth as a universal language. It may be a matter of taste whether one prefers that signs for nature be subsumed in a larger organization instead of nature being made into a sign; whether one prefers a gestalt with some hierarchy instead of an open-ended series, endlessly expandable, components interchangeable. And the progression Mullican hints at may be as neutral as pulling back for an overview shot, zooming in for a close-up, and then panning. Or as cheerful as a move from macrocosm to microcosm to infinity. However, the fall through time to this point, as imitated by Mullican, doesn’t feel like a felix culpa. The presence of a glyph of a brain and the three basic geometric forms in the upper corners of each unit, the compulsion to encode which is reminiscent of (but without the transcending conclusion of) Jennifer Bartlett’s Rhapsody, the serial order, all bespeak computer technology allied to the immediacy-through-oversimplification of advertising. If the spiritual goes into this machine, it comes out glossy and glamorous, idealized but not ideal—all mystique with no place for the mystic. No wonder Mullican is nostalgic.

Jeanne Silverthorne