Los Angeles

Matt Mullican

Kuhlenschmidt-Simon Gallery

Matt Mullican’s work resembles a semiological catalogue of the entire spectrum of knowledge. Through the use of a wide variety of materials and techniques, such as rubbings, stained glass, etched granite, banners, and posters, as well as a highly personal vocabulary of signs and symbols, Mullican is able to chart a uniquely systematic cosmology, whereby such metaphysical intangibles as life, death, fate, God, and hell are reduced to a form of archetypal visual language. Symbols are used self-reflexively, so that the individual can establish a symbiotic relationship with the broader cosmic continuum.

In this respect, Mullican is heir to a long tradition of philosophical and mystical “organizers,” including Denis Diderot, William Blake, and more recently, Joseph Cornell. While Mullican’s conceptual iconography can be closely related to Jacques Lacan’s findings that man requires the mediating effects of symbol to differentiate between conscious and unconscious thought, his ideology actually seems more closely aligned to that of Roland Banhes. In Image-Music-Text, 1977, Banhes wrote, “The reluctance to declare its codes characterizes bourgeois society and the mass culture issuing from it: both demand signs which do not look like signs.” These, according to Banhes, are the false mechanisms by which the establishment reifies its own existence, thus transforming the innate fluidity of meaning into self-evident, established orthodoxy. Mullican does the exact opposite. He reveals, indeed revels in, the pure symbology of his system from the outset, then proceeds to utilize it as a fictional means of synthesizing otherwise contradictory information.

This is perfectly illustrated by Mullican’s latest rubbings and a pair of etchings on granite. The exhibition was dominated by Untitled (History Over Opera House Surrounded by Signs), 1986–87, a 16-foot-square, eight-panel semiological “narrative” that represents half of Mullican’s habitual cosmic plan (the other half of which would, in its form, be the mirror image of this one). As in most of Mullican’s rubbings, the work breaks the universe down into five metaphysical sections, each defined by its own color. In this work “The World Framed” (the arts) is represented in yellow by the Paris Opera House, ,a symbolic synthesis of theater, music, painting, and architecture. Surrounding this is the intellectual world of “Language and Signs,” rendered in black and white and ranging from a collection of flags and banners (medieval disseminators of information) to a geometrically arranged series of contemporary international signage. One of the latter—a white circle on a black square within the standard white circle—is Mullican’s own sign for the world of “Language and Signs.” Mullican’s rubbings usually include “The Elemental World” (nature and elements), in green, and “The World Unframed” (objects from everyday life, such as a knife and fork, rest-room signs, a telephone), in blue, but he has omitted these metaphysical sections and their colors here. Instead, he has quoted some of his abstract significations from these sections in the world of “Language and Signs.” The somewhat banal material world of the artist himself is thus neatly tied together with a larger totality that is both a social and a purely symbolic system. Sign, language, and meaning are thus inseparable from the individual, society, and the history of the collective unconscious.

The upper half of the work, consisting of a huge half-circle of concentric arcs in red, represents “The Subjective World.” It depicts the history of the cosmos from the Big Bang, through early life forms and civilizations, to modern technological society, with its potential for both nuclear holocaust and the colonization of other worlds. The result resembles a complex hieroglyphic frieze that incorporates historical motifs from Greek mythology and the Hebrew Torah to McDonald’s Golden Arches and Mickey Mouse.

While the past two years have seen Mullican expand his iconography through the mapping of the cerebral landscape via the city plan, there are signs that his metaphysic is evolving into more figurative metaphorical formats, focusing in particular on the human anatomy. (In fact, one of the etchings on granite is called City Plan and the other is called Anatomy, both 1986.) This has been paralleled by an expansion of his original lexicon into a more fluid, subjective vocabulary, typified by a series of eight smaller rubbings, in red, all from 1986. In these works, such as Untitled (Heaven) and Untitled (Before Birth), the traditional archetypes—God, fate, death, etc.—act as a linguistic focus for a variety of symbolic subdivisions that can be read as both ephemeral neologisms and intuitive explorations. As in most of Mullican’s esthetic advances, however, the vocabulary and context may change, but the basic language remains the same.

Colin Gardner