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Artist Matt Mullican organises the world in different colours for his solo project

Matt Mullican’s exhibition Between Sign and Subject is a collection of works representing a visual system, with which the artist attempts to categorise the world around him.

by Sukanya Garg Aug 09, 2019

Between Sign and Subject is artist Matt Mullican’s first solo project in the United States in 20 years and brings together four bodies of work that join signature pieces from the 1980s with new works made for the exhibition: bulletin boards, light boxes, rubbings, and a flag that maps the universe of symbols and pictograms, that chart Mullican’s experience of being in the world.

Over the past four decades, the American-Venezuelan artist has created a multifaceted body of work encompassing drawing, collage, painting, photography, video, sculpture, installation, and performance under hypnosis. Trying nothing less than to ‘make sense of existence,’ Mullican invented a personal cosmology to aid him with this urgent, yet fallible task. Operating from an understanding of reality as based entirely on perception, Mullican defined a visual system of colours and related symbols, representing five ‘worlds’. The first world, identified by the colour green, is the material world, the elements; 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 developed charts where each world is inscribed in a particular section. Early examples are represented in the exhibition context in the form of a bulletin board from 1980, a format Mullican has used since the early 1970s, to organise his visual universe.

Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 2| Matt Mullican| de Young Museum| STIR
Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 2 Image Credit: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Three other billboards feature a collection of household items representative of the blue world of everyday life, drawn studio views that distinguish the yellow realm of cultural production, and cut-out comics as part of the black world of signs. From the 1980s onward, Mullican developed his organisational 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) is a virtual reality recreation of his city, expanding over 18 square kilometers. It is represented in the project Untitled (1989), a series of light boxes made with the computer graphics generated for this project.

  • Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 3| Matt Mullican| de Young Museum| STIR
    Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 3 Image Credit: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
  • Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 4| Matt Mullican| de Young Museum| STIR
    Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 4 Image Credit: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The focal point of Between Sign and Subject is Living in that World; a group of 40 rubbings. One of the oldest methods of reproduction, dating to ancient China, rubbing traditionally involves laying paper over a carved stone and rubbing its surface to reveal the impressions. To produce these works, Mullican placed canvas onto reliefs created specifically for this purpose, and traced their outlines with black paint-stick. The resulting images hover between being drawing, print and painting and reflect the artist’s ongoing investigation of the gap between a thing and its symbolic representation.

Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 4| Matt Mullican| de Young Museum| STIR
Between Sign and Subject - Installation view 5 Image Credit: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Matt Mullican: Between Sign and Subject is curated by Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge, Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The exhibition began at de Young Museum in San Francisco, USA, on March 9, 2019, and is on till January 26, 2020.  

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About Author

Sukanya Garg

Sukanya Garg

Garg is an artist and writer with a Masters degree in Public Policy from Duke University, USA. She has been involved in research, planning and execution of gallery exhibitions and external projects in collaboration with curators. Her writing has been published in several art magazines, journals and as part of curatorial notes and catalogues, and her work has been showcased in multiple exhibitions.

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