Los Angeles

Matt Mullican

Kunsthalle LA

The title “Matt Mullican: Works from the 1980s and 90s” is telling; it is during that era that Mullican gained entrée into what is now known as the Pictures generation, appearing alongside artists such as Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince in such era-defining exhibitions as 1989’s “Forest of Signs” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The Pictures artists seemed to share a vaguely melancholic understanding of modernism as a historical category and of contemporary art as a subset of the larger visual culture. And all recycled the most emblematically pared-down, abstract forms of modern art, using them as emptied-out vessels for a baroque content liberally imported from the “landscape” of mass media. This conflation of older and newer elements, both of them ready-made, was analyzed at the time as symptomatic of a “postmodern condition” that these artists had willfully contracted. But this is where the relation ends.

There is a comprehensive sweep to Mullican’s practice, which takes in life, death, and everything in between, that is ultimately much more modern than post-. Absurd as it might seem, he really does set out to answer the most general question—What does it all mean?—and he does so in the particular, through the construction of an increasingly complex ideational cosmology. Every part of our earthly and cosmic experience is scrupulously tabulated as a pictographic sign within an endlessly expanding and recombinant system. If, from one work to the next, the final answer continues to elude him, it is not for lack of trying. This conception of art as a totality machine is perhaps flawed, but it is certainly not built to break down. next, the final answer continues to elude him, it is not for lack of trying. This conception of art as a totality machine is perhaps flawed, but it is certainly not built to break down.

Installed in the expansive space of kunsthalle LA, a Chinatown gallery jointly run by SolwayJones and François Ghebaly, the work was divided into four components: a single monumental rubbing-painting executed in oil-stick-on-canvas from cardboard cutout designs; five more modestly scaled granite bas-reliefs; a set of sixteen color etchings; and a portfolio of ten silk-screen prints and sixty-four etchings derived from the artist’s notebooks. These various bodies of work are evidently linked, all of them partaking of the same symbolic lexicon that Mullican has made his own, albeit at different stages of development. One was even tempted to connect them more directly as a causal sequence of production, with the roughly notational imagery of the notebook portfolio (1993) yielding the more streamlined, graphic forms of the color etchings (1988), these in turn providing the basis for the bas-reliefs (1988), from which the rubbing-painting (1986–87) is finally made. That this process narrative would effectively unfold backward in time is a paradox perfectly in keeping with the gnostic tenor of the work.

It is no doubt the graphic restraint of Mullican’s art that gave it a critical edge in the 1980s and ’90s, a period of waxing and waning enthusiasm for expressionism. However, the opposition between practices that reaffirm the centrality of the creative “I” (typically painterly) and those that are self-questioning (typically photo-based) is here rendered untenable. Inasmuch as the writing and drawings in his very handmade and personal notebooks constitute the source of everything that follows, Mullican’s work may be seen as willfully steeped in solipsistic idiosyncrasy. However, in the straightforward process of creating the notebook etchings on display here, the notebooks’ contents are reversed; without the help of a mirror, thoughtfully provided at the gallery front desk, his scrawled words and graphics would remain illegible. This flipped content bespeaks both “expressive” diffidence and a self-alienating tendency on the artist’s part, echoing formally his ongoing interest in hypnosis and mind-altering substances.

Whereas so many of his Pictures generation colleagues were seen as providing proof positive of the fallacy of originality, Mullican has always been concerned with a less timely, more atavistic sort of “death of the author.” The mutual dismantling of subject and object positions enacted by the artist is a direct outcome of the always-impossible attempt to “hold it together.” Mullican’s proliferating practice seeks to map our “Forest of Signs” by whatever means necessary, whether through logic or the derangement of the senses.

Jan Tumlir