by Mark Van Proyen
Because this exhibition invites a dual commentary, it is a tricky one to review. It consists of five new editioned prints, all dated 2020, all executed on Rives BFK paper and all large at 56 x 40 inches. Despite their designation as etchings, they are, in fact, multi-generational prints starting as color aquatints, subsequently complemented by hard- and soft-ground intaglio techniques. The quintet, collectively titled Represent the Work: New Etchings by Matt Mullican, has three things in common, the most noticeable being a centrally located aquatint square saturated with a bright orangish-yellow. Another is a text component stating “Represent the Work” in the kind of slender block letters that would have made any 1960s-era high school industrial drawing teacher proud. (The text above the squares states the word “Represent,” while below the squares, we read “The Work.”) The third element is the sequencing of the five images, which invite a left-to-right reading. The first print functions as a kind of emblematic overture or frontispiece, while the remaining four come off as cryptic episodes in a fragmentary narrative of differing notational registers. The relation between the four seems as much musical as informational, as if they were distinct movements of a symphony themed around the dissection of consciousness.
In the context of these works, the injunctive phrase “represent the work” can bake your noodle. Is not the work a representation of doing the work of representation? And what is being represented if the tangible object is only its reflective representation? A multitude of provisional answers come to the fore, some tautological, others performative. It takes some familiarity with Mullican’s almost 50-year career to winnow them down to the metaphysical core of any possible answer.
Mullican is typically classified as belonging to a group of artists called The Pictures Generation (celebrated in a major 2009 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum), which emerged in the New York art scene during the 1980s. This grouping now seems like an awkward attribution, in that most of the artists involved were deconstructing mass media’s mythmaking machinery, showing it to be a kind of manufactured virtual reality, often to an overtly political effect. Mullican’s work from that era trafficked in a
very different kind of deconstruction, one that was more focused on the machinery of language itself, or, to be more precise, on the ways that presumably arbitrary abstract shapes can take on the burden of signification when juxtaposed with each other. In other instances, his work also showed how coded signs could be stripped of their ability to signify. Either way, reality itself was cast as a secondary epiphenomenon to a Platonic order of fundamental categories.
There is even more to this backstory, in that Mullican’s parents, Lee Mullican and Venezuelan-born Luchita Hurtado, were both artists. The senior Mullican was a member of the Dynaton group, and had an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1951. Hurtado was also close to the group in that she was married to its founder, Wolfgang Paalen, before marrying the senior Mullican. (Hurtado’s work has recently come to posthumous light, and would have been the subject of a career survey at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, had there been no pandemic). The painters of the Dynaton group were very involved in forwarding a kind of metaphysical abstraction that could be related to the theories
of Wassily Kandinsky, seeing their pictures as gateways to a cosmic realm of primordial energies. Matt Mullican’s work comes at the same idea from an almost opposite angle, in that it substitutes the Saussurian dialectic of signifier and signified for the older Kantian duality of phenomenon and noumenon. In other words, the younger Mullican’s work postulates a condition of hyper-codification as an oblique retort to the senior Mullican’s assertion of transcendence.
With this backstory in place, we can return to the work under consideration. The frontispiece print is subtitled Logo, which implies a double meaning, of branded identity and “logos.” By virtue of its concentric circles of red, white, green and blue, it looks at first glance to be the identification emblem worn on the wing of a World War II-era aircraft. More to the point, it is a double squaring of a series of four circles, suggesting that it can be taken as a key to unlock the meaning of the other four prints, with different colors representing specific categories of experience.
The other four prints are black-on-yellow. The second of the series is subtitled Alphabet. It runs through upper- and lower-case renditions of the 26 letters and 10 numerical characters, printed in reverse, sporting the same slender line that we see in the repeated utterances of Represent the Work. The third print, subtitled charts, features a more informal line. It seems like a notational toying at the boundaries between ideograms and pictograms, displaying a series of shapes that parse a sequential morphological transformation process. Person and Place, the fourth print, contains three perspectival descriptions of strange objects in space. A fourth shows a schematic of what appears to be a robotic figure, holding the silhouette of a key slightly above its head. All appear in circular shapes resembling thought bubbles. The
fourth print uses melting lines that spell out a hallucinatory rendition of the phrase “I love to work for truth and beauty,” which is also the print’s subtitle. How it reflects on the others in the series is a question I cannot answer, and it may not be that important a question anyway. On the other hand, it might be an extremely important squaring of the rhetorical circle opened by the phrase “represent the work.”
At the top of this review, I mentioned that this exhibition invites a dual commentary. That second commentary would focus on five presentations in the gallery that break each print down into the various phases of its ideation and stages of technical execution. In an ordinary situation, these would be serviceable as didactic presentations pointed at persons such as myself, who have little technical familiarity with printmaking procedures. But in the case of Mullican’s Represent the Work prints, it seems to have additional import: It shows how the theme-and-variation structure of image generation mirrors the psychological chess game of bringing somethingness out of a nothingness of all that is non-specific.
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“Represent the Work: New Etchings by Matt Mullican” @ Crown Point Press through August 31, 2021.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.