The first Matt Mullican show I ever saw threw me a little bit. All these bright yellow-and-white stencilled works. They looked not so much like «semiotics», the science of symbols, so much as «signage», as in, actual physical street signs: the instructions that construction teams use on building sites and roadsides to ward off members of the general public.
His imagery mixes the ubiquitous (as in, not universal, but definitely widespread) look of signs with other well–known symbolic systems, such as the lines of the basketball court or the figurines of board games. He merges these with the isotypes of Otto Neurath to make a kind of new hieroglyphics. Now, there is a pragmatism to such visual languages which gives them strength. Unlike art writing, it seeks to be understood. Hi-vis jackets were there to help protect workers from getting run over by people in cars before they became signifiers of protest. At the same time, the way that the state and corporations communicate with the general public has changed over the years, certainly more than Matt Mullican’s own production methods. And so his work has, unavoidably, acquired a kind of retro atmosphere.
If you recall that he was a student of Baldessari and that he grew up breathing the same paranoid cosmological air as a figure like Thomas Pynchon, all his weird diagrams make much more sense. They’re part of the secret theology of the American west, where Area 51 is understood as a sacred territory, where aliens play the part of angels, computer manuals are read like Bibles, and Bibles interpreted like computer manuals. It’s not fundamentalist, but it is about fundamentals. The thing is, Mullican is not paranoid. He’s just surrounded by paranoid people—by computer programmers who read Jung, by Hollywood producers who have interests in politics, by institutions who are backed by collectors—and in order to cope with the world they have made, he’s learned to communicate in their language. It just so happens that this language is in no small way like the panels on the voyager space station that are designed to communicate with beings from outer space.
There’s a beautiful story about the juvenile Matt Mullican. When he was a student, his studio was down a long corridor, virtually at the end of a bunker. Only one window threw light into the corridor. So he set up a mirror to bounce the light further into the room, and then another, and then had someone sit in the doorway with another mirror to bring the beams directly into the classroom. There, in order to make a kind of record of it, he concentrated the beams through a magnifying glass, and burned a leaf.
Thanks to Arthur Fink and Leila Peacock for the references linked above.
Matt Mullican: Representing the Five Worlds – 50 Years of Work, Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich
11 September–7 November 2020
All images © Matt Mullican & Mai 36 Galerie
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