New York

Matt Mullican

At once rationalist and (neo)Romanticist, technocratic and ambivalently spiritual, matt Mullican’s work has consistently traced a paradox of late-modern subjectivity: the tension between a private language code (resistant to the norms of everyday communication) and the desire to feed into the logic of our regulated, postindustrial society. This now familiar dualism of consciousness continues to galvanize Mullican’s practice, suggesting that the artist has always been most interested in articulating the unstable negotiation between the rational and the irrational. This dilemma was posed in the first part of Mullican’s exhibition in which the artist juxtaposed recent computer-generated images of a model city and large-scale, obliquely figurative drawings made under hypnosis in 1982. These works were framed within black and red walls, symbolizing “sign, language” and “[the] subjective, meaning without materials,” respectively, and suggesting a continuous interplay of two distinct states conveyed by the aforementioned representationalmodes: the ultrarational (evoked by technology) and the unconscious (suggested by Mullican’s version of automatic drawing).

Since the late ’70s, Mullican has used the archaic model of cosmology to represent the process by which the subjective rubs up against the universal. Using preexisting systems of communication (such as the international sign lexicon), Mullican proceeded to dovetail private discourse with public emblem, manufacturing “subjectively universal” symbols that often take the form of banners and bannerlike structures. In a sense, he is like a cultural semiotician drunk with narcissism, gladly seduced by the power of reason to remap the world in relation to the rules of the unconscious, but aware that all of this is only a fiction set loose by a new mythological iconography, one that is deceptively accessible but mischievously unutilitarian.

Overall, this two-part show functioned as a repository of Mullican’s carefully assembled, continuously expanding inventory of transfigured cultural signs and materials, now reframed within the structure of his model urban space—the cosmology made socially concrete, yet still abstract. In both parts, the gallery was subtly reconfigured to create distinct territorial quadrants—or architectural chambers—housing the encyclopedic range of Mullican’s scavenged materials and signs. These boundaries were reinforced by a color-coding system that alluded to Mullican’s symbolic cosmology; it is as if one had entered the artist’s literalized model city, encountering distinct moments in the construction of his archive.

In Part I, this city was also indexed by etched-glass panels (part of Mullican’s cosmology landscape), and the reedited footage of a 1935 16 mm film of new york city, while in Part II, it reappeared in the form of a computer-generated virtual-reality-sequence. The second part of the exhibition was also filled with many other works including a set of homasote boards, each covered with distinct types of materials collected by the artist over nearly 20 years—fragments of comic strips; lists of common things and everyday physical conditions; drawings of cosmology charts; pillow cases and buttons. Downstairs, a recent 55-minute tape of Mullican “performing” under hypnosis was placed next to a vitrine filled with an arrangement of human bones from 1978. Conceptually rigorous yet punctuated with the echoes of a psychological excavation, Mullican’s project continues to seduce us with its fecund contradictions.

Joshua Decter