New York

Matt Mullican

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

The absence of a universal lexicon of symbols is something utopians and mystics bitterly regret. To give birth to an internal system of signs with such simplicity and directness that their truth is evident to all: such has been the goal of cosmologists from Pythagoras to Monty Python. Matt Mullican is known for his own complex system of emblematic signs. But his recent installation here steps through another dimension. Through the use of a device called "Connection Machine–2,” Mullican has created an imaginary world city, presented as though ready for a future real estate agent’s sales pitch. It comes complete with architectural floor plans, broad panoramic color views, individual light-box color close-ups, and riveting computer-animated video tape giving us a speeding trip through the city’s entrails. Mullican’s city is clean, organized, and empty. It’s an abstract array of colors, patterns, and symbols.

The work is powerful in its sheer didacticism. Everything feels prefabbed, sanitized, and graphically manicured: trimmed to perfection. Like all of Mullican’s past work, this noncity of the future is primarily about language. Mullican inquires into the language of the symbol, its position within a larger cosmology; he gives his inquiries a sort of cinematic completeness of definition. Mullican attaches symbolic significance to his color usage: red equals the subjective; blue, the world unframed; black and white, signs; yellow, the world framed; green, the elemental. But since each of the 12 views onto the imaginary city (represented by 12 light boxes) has various colors in it, it is impossible to read coherent meaning into the color codes. The symbolism, which appears obscure and elusive from the beginning, is revealed to be completely indecipherable; so, too, with the animation. The fast-paced speed chase through the city is exhilarating in the best cop-show tradition, but it doesn’t elucidate any distinction in the stated symbolic values.

This raises questions about Mullican’s basic structural methodology, his reliance on a personal cosmology and language. Graphics, as found in signage and banners, are the result of a culture’s agreed-upon definitions. What, then, is the function of a personal cosmology? Similarly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, makes a very succinct argument against the possibility of personal language. In essence, language is determined by agreement (rule-following) and usage. What, then, is the possible meaning of a private language, or personal cosmology, if language is, by definition, a group activity? Mullican’s total language-city is intriguing, but it never takes root outside the realm of fantasy.

Dena Shottenkirk