In the 1970s, Mullican, born in California in 1951, who now lives in Berlin and teaches at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, began to deal with the question of what images actually mean and describe. “Nothing Should Exist” or how can we make sure that something really exists? And how can we construct a coherent world out of images and impressions?
In Switzerland, Mullican’s work had already been exhibited at various times; thus, at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in 1993 and at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in 2001. In 2015, the Winterthur Kunstmuseum acquired a large group of works by the artist. The current exhibition outlines Mullican’s complex world with the help of selected older works and some more recent ones. It is part of the Parallel Events of Manifesta in Zurich.
Matt Mullican’s work is about nothing less than the appropriation of reality, the relationship between things and their symbolic representation, between direct experience and systematic order, between a subjective interpretation and the material world. What kind of world does an image represent, Mullican wondered. What does it mean if you trust in the descriptive power of a cartoon, understand it quite literally and use it to create a possible reality? How can you even comprehend what happens within this reality, and what does the world it depicts really look like? In his drawings, Mullican began to develop a fictitious world and check it for its true and factual content.
From these works, Mullican progressed to modelling possible worlds, creating cosmologies. His goal was not to develop a valid model, but to focus on modelling as a process, that is, on devising various possibilities, on designing and not simply claiming things. Mullican thereupon developed a cosmology consisting of five levels corresponding to the different forms of appropriating the world. It begins with the level of the elements, of material things; followed by the level of objects with which we deal every day; the core of the model is the level of the arts, in which images of the world are created. These are followed by the level of language, the abstract representation of things, and crowned by the level of our subjective world, which interprets all levels in its individual way. Mullican designed this model for the most varied media – glass windows, flagstones, posters, and banners – from an abstract diagram to an imaginary town in which viewers can move around. Even the banner for the Kunstmuseum Winterthur Centennial is based on it.
For Mullican, the counterpart to these speculations is holding on to material traces of reality such as the images left by objects exposed to light on photograms or the moulds of objects cast in tin. Best known are Mullican’s “rubbings” as, for more than thirty years, he has created pictures that are neither paintings, nor drawings, but rubbings of originals. With this, he has developed a technique that matches his thoughts, for the rubbings clearly show that, essentially, we are always looking at images or copies. For a comprehensive new work, The Meaning of Things, Mullican went even further and looked for images in today’s largest library, the Internet.