New York

Matt Mullican

All the world’s a stage, as the saying goes, and by the same token the stage is a world unto itself, a hermetically sealed fiction that is also reality. Matt Mullican’s method of theatrical installation is an ambitious attempt to offer the kind of comprehensive world picture implicit in the fictions of environmental art, world stage, and cosmological schema. He wants something that is at once a Gesamtkunstwerk and a streamlined mirror of the world—a monadic art on a grand scale, its double meaning resolved through his notion of an international language.

Inherent in such a grandiose, visionary enterprise is the possibility of megalomania. Mullican avoids this danger on a perceptual level by inviting us to recognize the illusory/pictorial character of his art—his works here (some 50 of them) are oilstick rubbings that, indeed, seem to float like oilslick on a surface. He avoids it on a conceptual level through his symbolism, which seems to present an exhaustive “representation” of reality, but in fact offers only a kind of intellectual shell of it. The material grandeur of the work, as well as its ambition to symbolize everything, are undermined the moment their inner tentativeness is realized. Indeed, the oilstick handling confirms the tentativeness of the symbolism, whatever its readability.

Mullican denies metaphysical status to his symbols, and denies that symbol-making metaphysicalizes reality. Moreover, Mullican’s elaborate symbolic scheme, which in appearance seems exhaustive, is in truth an open-ended catalogue or inherently incomplete index of things. And the same kind of symbols are not used throughout, subtly undermining the scheme’s supposedly universal character. Universality is more apparent than real; the artist may be playing God, but God has become a quirky machine that does not produce its world by any one set of rules. This generates an oddly sublime effect, conceptual rather than material. Mullican’s work trails off into the murky realm of ideas, saving it from being both spectacle and cant.

Mullican offers us image-symbols of God, nature, life, death, heaven, hell, house, city, anatomy, evolution, fate, the elements, etc., each with a touch of idiosyncracy, an odd particularity that seems to blur the symbol into an illustration. He plays with the possibilities of symbolic representation, creating a kind of Potemkin’s village of symbols behind which there is no reality. At the same time, this fairy-tale village seems to be changing magically before our eyes. Mullican’s symbol theater does not clearly add up to a language; it is a vocabulary without syntax. The symbols are laid out neatly, and some fall together in classes, but overall they are inconclusive, causing a peculiar strain on intelligibility. The system is not as deductive as it looks, its parts do not fit together coherently, and nothing in it is as reductively simple as it first seems to be. Mullican places himself at the creative point where imagination and symbolization are one and the same, reminding us that his installation is, after all, art, not a semblance of truth.

Donald Kuspit