New York

Matt Mullican

Christine Burgin Gallery

In 1925, reflecting in “An Autobiographical Study” on the hypnotic treatment that he had abandoned in his clinical practice years before, Sigmund Freud wrote that the method had nonetheless proved to be an “immense help,” in select cases, “by widening the field of the patient’s consciousness and putting within his reach knowledge which he did not possess in his waking life.” The persona conjured in Matt Mullican’s recent installation at Christine Burgin Gallery, Five Suitcases of Love, Truth, Work and Beauty, 2005—a figure whose emergence was precipitated by Mullican’s performances while under hypnosis—also seems to be sorely in need of some knowledge, though perhaps not of the type that Freud had in mind.

This character, whom Mullican has elsewhere labeled “that person,” is nameless, genderless (the artist uses the masculine pronoun when discussing him for the sake of convenience), and ageless, though he first surfaced in the late 1970s. Both flibbertigibbet and savant, “that person” is an obsessive draftsman, and for this show he used black paint to cover dozens of pages of white graph paper with text and images. These drawings were attached in grids to white cotton bedsheets that hung on the walls and draped down from the ceiling, refashioning the gallery space as an immersive chamber that might have inspired the somnambulistic state of their maker—if the work did not so plainly bespeak a damaged, dissociated subjectivity.

What “that person” seems to require is information, and while earlier considerations of various epistemological codes have seen Mullican employ cosmological diagrams, architectural models, and pictographic symbols, the data on view here are at once less arcane and more idiosyncratic. In the absence of full cognitive faculties, he might be in want of the multiplication tables up to the number 12, which are shown in a tightly packed chart, or the mathematical equations for converting different quantities of length, area, volume, mass, temperature, and illumination. Or he might need an “emergency flowchart” to promote safety in the workplace, which comes complete with yes-or-no questions to ask the employee who has fallen from a ladder, had a heart attack, or suffered an electrical shock.

Mullican alternates between such public language and a more personal semiotic, which includes the lyrics to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” on one panel and, on another, offers glimpses of the individual’s point of view (through a pair of kidney-shaped goggles) as he goes about his everyday business—drinking coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal, driving, sleeping. Several pages contain calligraphic curlicues and free-association scribbles that resemble Surrealist experiments with automatic writing, and the dense, screwball mix of lowercase and uppercase letters has been applied with the apparent deliberation of a child learning to print.

Some of the twee dictums here (we read TRUTH IS FOR EVERYONE on the first work visible on entering the gallery, and THIS IS IMPORTANT on the drawing with the conversion charts) risk a certain half-baked cuteness, but the delicacy of the bedsheet supports, and Mullican’s affecting evocation of the self manqué that emerges in that tailspin state between consciousness and unconsciousness, renders his address of the big questions, via “that person,” surprisingly moving. The guy is just trying to get by, and he cares about love and work, truth and beauty. What else need he know?

Lisa Pasquariello