A Review of Matt Mullican: Pantagraph at Peter Freeman, New York
Matt Mullican has got them both: brains and brawn. If there were intellectual and athletic decathlons in contemporary art, Mullican would win handily. He has the genetic material, training, and discipline. Mullican is the son of artists Lee Mullican and Luchita Hurtado. His father’s work was shown earlier this year at James Cohan (New York). His mother’s work is currently on show at Park View (Los Angeles). Mullican’s brother, John, is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Few families have ”the right stuff” way this one does.
Lee Mullican was a member of the three-person Dynaton Group, a loose San Francisco-based collective. The LA Times described the group as “among the wildest [in the 20th Century.] . . . aggressive. Romantic. Space age. Seductive.” They explored indigenous American arts and cultures, filled with mysticism, or as Christopher Knight put it, “Surrealism for the New World.” The elder Mullican’s work might be described as transcendent abstraction. Hurtado’s work may be better described as figuration meets abstraction. It is certainly sympathetic with the Dynatons. Among Matt Mullican’s numerous gifts is his ability to synthesize his parental history and influences along with his training and dialogues from his studies at CalArts during the formidable tenure of John Baldessari. Mullican has recalled one of the first things that stole his interest as a young artist was “the idea that all I see are light patterns. . . .When all you see are light patterns, you remove all subject matter.” Symbols are a perfect depiction of nonsubject matter for him. They reduce the world to its simplest form. The connections between symbols are totally individual, non-prescriptive, and non-narrative. Mullican’s cosmology is “a model for a cosmology, not a cosmology itself.” This is an exhibition that requires thinking.
There are three types of work presented here, all grounded in Mullican’s symbols and cosmology. As you enter the exhibition, you see five bright, bold nylon banners, each measuring 5 x 4.5 m (@ 16.5 x 14.75 ft.) They divide the gallery’s cavernous architecture. Their intimidating scale demands attention to some of the icons in Mullican’s graphic language.
Like the signs and signals in the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals (United Nations Publication, ECE/TRANS/196), the symbols depict some of Mullican's cosmos of signs. They are colored coded, signifying order: the material world (green), the as-yet-uncultured (blue), culture (yellow), the arena of signs and language (black and white) and subjective experience (red).” Order and systematization are crucial in Mullican’s world. Alles in Ordnung: everything is okay.
On the gallery’s altitudinous walls, are Mullican’s paintings, termed “rubbings,” a process Mullican has used since 1984. (Mullican’s rubbings were recently featured in a massive, comprehensive catalog, published in conjunction with his 2016-2017 touring exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and Kunsthalle Heilbronn, Germany.) These works are made using acrylic gouache and oil stick using transfers and reproductions. Some of the rubbings are of machines, including a pantagraph, a machine used to copying a figure to a desired scale, consisting of styluses for tracing and copying mounted on four jointed rods in the form of a parallelogram with extended sides. Think of a mechanical, manually operated enlarger.
These rubbings also include graphic rendering of languages, signs, interiors, and exteriors, and atmospheres, again in Mullican’s color codes. One work in particular, “Organization,” a gargantuan black and white rubbing of the 1853 organizational chart of the New York and Erie Railroad is like a 19th Century floral engraving in contrast to a hard, almost knife-sharp rubbing titled “Untitled (Center Subject of Center Language.”)
Between the banners and the confines of the walls are purpose-built tables, displaying 535 sheets of paper, each measuring 30.5 x 22.9 cm (12 x 9 in.) These collages, really individual images, each cut and glued from pages in Carl Jung’s posthumously published Man and His Symbols. Most people walk past the tables. Most people do not realize that Mullican made each collage and added a hand-written page number, as well as his own serial numbers. Big deal? Yes, this is a really big deal. Jung’s book was, in effect, a post WWI examination of man's relation to this own unconscious. In Jung's view the unconscious is the guide, friend, and adviser of the conscious. Mullican reminds us to look within and to explore our own cosmologies.
This is not easy art. It takes time. It takes thought. It is an encounter with more cerebral issues that many exhibitions seem to avoid. It is not pretty, but it is beautiful. It is encounter with intellectual prowess combined with aesthetic brawn, on a par with Barbara Bloom and Christopher Williams. It is strong stuff worthy of both a MacArthur Foundation grant and an Olympic gold medal.
Written by Clayton Press, a contributor to Arteviste.