File Note 106: Matt Mullican - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Lars Bang Larsen



The Sequence of Things References Quote Biography Credits

The Sequence of Things

In lectures, Matt Mullican talks about his work with his eyes closed. “I think it might be because I could have ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and so I must limit the environmental distractions when attempting to describe events that took place 40 years ago.”1

Pathologies apart, this trick could also have to do with the fact that his parents collected indigenous art from Oceania, Latin America and the U.S.; at home they had an Asmat shield, a Hopi fetish, a New Guinea house post and many other items.2 Thus as someone familiar with the power of the ritualised gaze, Mullican is capable of playing with the persona of the seer.

Or—on another anthropological note—it could relate to his growing up with television. Not that he wants to retrospectively stymy his eyesight to remember TV images seen long ago, or to retrospectively purge a televised onslaught of information. It comes down to belonging to the first generation who changed channels. Using the TV remote’s flip-flopping power of dis- and re-engagement to skip between simultaneous data flows and realms of identification Mullican goes, as he puts it, “from being me-as-a person to me-as-language.”3

His blind talks are in a fundamental sense without focus. Taking the form of a kind of longue durée through his entire artistic production since art school they are an exercise in sidelining or overloading the authorial Self, and a way of saying:
My works relate, because they come from me, but they don’t relate. More important than my authorship is your relation to the work, to the thing itself. I undermine hierarchies and level out difference. By not being here—like the child or the affected subject who closes his eyes to withdraw from the world—I give you freedom from continuity to choose and form your own sequences in my works, and between my works and the world. 

In the 1950s the academic rage was to map out the social psychology of TV. The mass media performersthe quizmaster, the announcer, the interviewer—are simulacral personae, wrote Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in an essay published in Psychiatry in 1956 (a text from which theorists such as Jean Baudrillard would later borrow): “The persona is the typical and indigenous figure of the social scene presented by radio and television.”4 The sociality of this ‘scene’ is, Horton and Wohl’s words, ‘para-social’; it is as-if, lacking in reciprocality and material reality, a theatrical confusion of identities between reality and fiction. 

Opening up different aspects of his Self, Mullican also gives birth to other (para-social?) personae within his work. In his trance performances, for instance, he allows That Person to take control momentarily, as if his body hid a freak DNA string of a different guy that occasionally usurps it. Mullican is an artist travailing within his own psyche, writes Hal Foster; this sounds conventional and artist’s-mythy, but the point is that Mullican eschews existentialism’s view of the modifiable nature of the human subject’s constitution as well as the transcendentalism of the channeling or mediating subject—while these positions are somehow not mutually exclusive in his work, and remain available to him. There is irony and there is not irony.

Art historically speaking Mullican is associated with the Pictures Generation that counts 1980s household names such as Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine—artists who all know about the pervasive power of ubiquitous imagery. But unlike this very New York City group of artists, and as the student of John Baldessari, Mullican travels with West Coast luggage. The only taboo at his alma mater, the conceptual L.A. art school CalArts, was spirituality. “No one got close to Heaven,”5 he observes laconically. Well, guess where he went next: in the present exhibition there is a new work titled 64 Statements on Heaven. Mullican is a classicist rather than a romanticist, to use this distinction. In other words his work is not a product of its time, but transgresses contemporaneity and its visual culture with anachronic lightness across many media and materials. Here (self-)marginalization enters the picture again, in a more specific way: “The spiritual element in my work has been trouble, but at the same time it has kept me young.” 6

If Conceptual Art was about a reduction of the art work to an idea, any image that Mullican produces arrives from this zero degree of visuality to the depicted universe. In Mullican’s version this universe consists of maps, systems, typologies, cosmologies, clichés and other visual formats that are as linguistic as they are pictorial due to their syntactical properties as well as their inherent tensions with the laws of mimesis, picture plane, framing, and others of the devices and conventions that prop up and flesh out visual art. As para-visualities, to call them this, they are skeletal, and investigated or speculated forth—or simply postulated—and possess a frail rigidity as if they seemingly can be instantly revoked by the power of thought or an abrupt change in the given symbolic economy. Their dialectic is that of being my own projection of meaning, at the same time as they place me in larger systems where I am insignificant. As in his blind talks, not being seen, by people or objects or systems, is both liberating and diminishing. Who am I who am not seen?

His works are active from the subject down and from the things up. This is invariably double bound, indirect: “I’m not using or making a cosmology as if it were a real one, but as a model for the possibility of one.”7 If you in this want to see a discussion of death, which in contemporary art is as rare a subject as spirituality, this is OK, too.


1 Mullican in email, 25 August 2016

2 Marco Pasi, “An Interview with Matt Mullican on Lee Mullican”, in: Christopher Scheer, Sarah Victoria Turner and James Mansell (eds.), Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy, the Arts and the American West (Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art / Fulgur Press, forthcoming).

3 Matt Mullican in phone conversation 25 August 2016

4 Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl: ‘Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance’, Psychiatry 19:215-29 (1956).

5 Quoted from Mullican’s Boiler Room Lecture, Monash University, Melbourne, 19 April 2015

6 Matt Mullican in phone conversation 25 August 2016

7 Op.cit.

Ken Baynes, Art in Society (1975)

Charles K Bliss, Bliss Symbols

Betty Boop

John Caird, Theatre Craft: A Director’s Practical Companion from A to Z (Faber and Faber; 2010)

Combination of the Two by Big brother and the Holding Company (1968)

Henry Dreyfuss, Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols, 1972

Edinburgh Encyclopædia (ed. David Brewster, published William Blackwood; 1808–1830)

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (ed. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, 1751–­1772)

Emile Grillot de Givry, Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic and Alchemy (Zachery Kwinter Books Ltd, 1991)

C. G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (1964)

Frank O. King, Gasoline Alley (Tribune Media Services, 1918-present)

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumber­land (New York Herald and New York American, 1905 – 1926)

 'I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.' Claes Oldenburg


Matt Mullican (b. 1951, Santa Monica, CA) lives and works in Berlin and New York. Mullican has exhibited widely internationally, recent solo exhibitions include: Nothing Should Exist, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Zürich (2016); THAT WORLD / ESE MUNDO, Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2014); Books Representing Books, Kunsthalle Mainz (2014); The Meaning of Things, Spazio Culturale Antonio Ratti, Como; Organizing the World, Haus der Kunst, Munich (2011), and Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht. Recent performances include: Presenting the Work, Praxes (2014); Uncovering that Person, Louvre (Fiac), Paris (2012); Culturgest, Lisboa, Portugal (2009); and Under Hypnosis, Tate Modern, London (2007). He participated in KölnSkulptur #8, Skulpturenpark Köln (2015); The Encyclopedic Palace, Venice Biennale, Venice (2013); documenta X, Kassel (1997); and Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1989 and 2008). The Sequence of Things is the first major UK exhibition of the artist since More Details from an Imaginary Universe at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford (2000).


Lars Bang Larsen is an art historian, writer and curator based in Copenhagen.

With thanks to: Helga Maria Klosterfelde Edition; Capitain Petzel, Berlin; Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Vaduz; Mai 36 Galerie, Zürich; Massimo de Carlo; and Ringier Collection, Zürich. 

File Note supported by Charles Asprey 

Shipping supported by Tuplin Fine Art