Matt Mullican: Between Sign and Subject

Jan 9, 2019

Black and white drawing of round and square shapes.

Matt Mullican, Untitled (What my Eye Sees).

de Young \ Opening March 9, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO (January 10, 2019)—For his first solo project in the United States in twenty years, Matt Mullican is taking over the atrium at the de Young museum with a selection of works from the 1980s through the present. Flags, bulletin boards, light boxes, and a wall of rubbings will draw visitors into a universe of symbols and pictograms that chart Mullican’s experience of being in the world.

“The conceptual similarities between Mullican’s pictorial universe and the visual shorthands that keep us glued to the screens of our smartphones and computers, are striking. What might initially appear as an arbitrary personal cosmology has many surprising parallels with application-driven modes of organizing information,” notes Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Mullican’s multitudinous latticing of the world feels particularly anticipatory and resonant with current modes of representation.”

Between Sign and Subject will be inaugurated with a lecture by Mullican on opening day. 

Matt Mullican: Between Sign and Subject is organized by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

In Detail
Over the past four decades, Matt Mullican has created a multifaceted body of work encompassing drawing, collage, painting, photography, video (including early forms of virtual reality), sculpture, and installation as well as performance under hypnosis. Trying nothing less than to “organize the world” and make sense of his existence, Mullican invented a personal cosmology to aid him with this fallible yet urgent task. The artist doesn’t shy away from describing his project as bordering on the impossible, born out of an anxious desire to project a classificatory system onto a universe that defies any clear sense of order. His ritualistic attempts to create meaning take the place of a cosmic significance that he believes has gone missing.

For Mullican, “life exists in our subjective experience, in the senses. . . . Therefore, pictured reality is equal to reality. The fictional is equal to the real. . . . Everything is abstract. It is only through our history and culture that we construct a reality.” Operating from an understanding of reality as based entirely on perception, Mullican deconstructs the world according to a visual system of symbols and pictograms, which he reassembles into posters, rubbings, flags, and banners that operate reflexively as “signs of signs.”

Within Mullican’s pictorial universe, colors indicate different worlds. The first world, identified by the color green, is the material world; the second, represented by blue, is everyday life; the third is yellow and indicates the world of culture and science; the fourth is that of language and appears in black and white; and the last and most important world is that of subjective experience, which is rendered in red.

To represent this system spatially, Mullican initially developed charts where each world was inscribed in a particular section. Early examples are represented in the exhibition context in the form of a bulletin board from 1982, a format Mullican has used since the early 1970s to display drawings, photographs, objects, book designs, prints, pages of notebooks, and illustrations. The boards represent his encyclopedic hunger for images and still serve as templates for the ideas that he would develop over the course of his career.

Three other billboards feature a collection of household items representative of the blue world of everyday life. They anticipate Mullican’s inclusion of found functional objects in demarcated sections of his exhibitions; drawn studio views, distinguishing the yellow realm of cultural production, within which he locates his artistic practice; and comics. Mullican understands the latter, part of the black world of signs, as a mental construct within a picture that he deconstructs by removing it from its storyline as part of his ongoing search for an objective meaning of things.

From the 1980s onward, Mullican developed his organizational charts into maps of a fictitious city. In 1986, a partnership with the Hollywood IT company Digital Productions gave Mullican the opportunity to develop this concept virtually. The Computer Project (1986–1990) re-created his cosmology as a cityscape expanding over 18 square kilometers divided into five districts associated with the five worlds. In Between Sign and Subject, it is represented by Untitled (1989), a series of light boxes made with the computer graphics generated for this project.

The focal point of the installation in the de Young’s Wilsey Court are forty rubbings mounted to the wall in a large grid. Dating back to ancient China, rubbing is one of the oldest known methods of reproduction, created by laying paper over a carved stone and rubbing its surface to reveal the impressions. Mullican’s rubbings are produced by placing canvas onto reliefs he creates specifically for this purpose. By rubbing the surface with a black paint-stick, a shadow of the relief appears on the canvas. The result is easily mistaken for a drawing or print: each rubbing’s precise manner of execution shows little evidence of the artist’s hand, giving the impression of commercial manufacturing. However, Mullican is disinterested in the mechanics of mass production (even his flags are hand-sewn); his investment lies firmly with the sign itself. The pieces serve as indexical representations of the master plates, just as his iconography serves as signifiers of his overall cosmology: “The rubbing is not a painting, a drawing, or a print, none of them and all of them. It is a retinal image in the sense of Plato’s shadow. When I look at something, what any eye sees is the retinal image, but the world is not that. What the rubbing represents is what the eye sees; the relief is it.” \ @deyoungmuseum

About Matt Mullican
Matt Mullican (b. 1951, Santa Monica, California) received his BFA from the California Institute of the Arts in 1974. He lives and works in Berlin and New York and was Professor of Time-Based Media at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg (2009–2018).

Mullican’s work has been exhibited at many international venues, including the Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan (2018) Camden Arts Centre, London; and Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (2016); Kunsthalle Mainz, Germany (2014); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2011); Tate Modern, London (2007); Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2005); Kunsthalle Basel and Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland (2001); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1998); Centre for Contemporary Art–Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, and Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany (1996); Nationalgalerie, Berlin, and IVAM, Centre del Carme, Valencia (1995); Wiener Secession, Vienna(1994); and MOCA, Los Angeles (1989 and 1986). He has participated in several collective exhibitions, most recently the 55th Venice Biennale (2013); Singapore Biennale (2011); and 28th São Paulo Art Biennial and Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum, New York (2008).

Visiting \ de Young museum
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco.
Open 9:30 am– 5:15 pm, Tuesdays–Sundays. Open select holidays; closed most Mondays.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The Contemporary Art Program is made possible by Presenting Sponsor the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund. Major support is provided by Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman and The Paul L. Wattis Foundation. Additional support is provided by Kate Harbin Clammer and Adam Clammer, Jessica and Jason Moment, Katie Schwab Paige and Matt Paige, David and Roxanne Soward, Joachim and Nancy Hellman Bechtle, Jeffrey N. Dauber and Marc A. Levin, Mr. Joshua Elkes–The Elkes Foundation, Shaari Ergas, Laurent Fischer and Jason Joseph Anthony, Richard and Peggy Greenfield, Kaitlyn and Mike Krieger, Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston–The Shenson Foundation, Lore Harp McGovern, Rotasa Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Charles R. Schwab, Gwynned Vitello, Vance Wall Foundation, Anonymous, and the Contemporary Support Council of the Fine Arts Museums.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The de Young originated from the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park and was established as the Memorial Museum in 1895. It was later renamed in honor of Michael H. de Young, who spearheaded its creation. The present copper-clad landmark building, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, opened in October 2005. Reflecting an active conversation among cultures, perspectives and time periods, the collections on display include American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 17th to the 21st centuries; art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; costume and textile arts; and international modern and contemporary art.

Helena Nordstrom, International Communications Manager \ \ 415.750.7608

Miriam Newcomer, Director of Communications \ \ 415.750.3554