Magazine article Artforum International

What Is That Person Thinking?

Magazine article Artforum International

What Is That Person Thinking?

Article excerpt

WHEN MATT MULLICAN is invited to lecture on his artistic practice to a large group at a museum or school, he typically begins his presentation by affixing a number of images to the wall behind him: first, a photograph of one person, followed by a comic-strip rendering of a second person; then two stick figures (one framed, the other unframed), an abstract sign for the human body (akin to those found at crosswalks or on bathroom doors) and a similarly spare icon denoting a head and chest (think of the cropped international symbol for customs officers at airports); and finally, a circle, a square, and a triangle assembled together in a loose configuration of parts. Each of these individual pictures, Mullican says, is named "Glen." (In truth, however, only the photograph depicts anyone recognizable as such, whether the visage of astronaut John Glenn, actor Glenn Ford, or some other familiar personage.) Once the images are hung, the artist moves down the line, methodically pricking each picture with a small pin, before turning back to his audience with a single question: Which image feels the most pain?

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Spectators could be forgiven for being momentarily stumped, since a kind of awkward silence seems precisely Mullican's point (whatever his claim that audiences eventually agree on the framed stick figure as particularly sensitive to the stab). For the artist's query inevitably prompts viewers to reflect anew on the subtle dynamics underpinning their ordinary experience with representation--or, more to the point, their ordinary experience with experience. Audiences are asked to take stock of the way empathy functions on the most instinctive levels and in connection with the most mundane of tasks, and to acknowledge and examine in turn the degree to which one invests images and objects with a life of one's own devising. We cultivate and care for the world we imagine. As Mullican observes in conversation: "When you look at a picture of a figure such as this, you end up seeing the fiction you are projecting onto that picture. You are confronted, in fact, with the very identity of your projection."

It should come as no surprise, then, that Mullican, when he came of age during the mid-1970s, was considered a kind of distant cousin to the "Pictures" generation. (Although he was not in Douglas Crimp's famous 1977 Artists Space show, Mullican's first New York exhibition had taken place at the same venue the previous year, and indeed his work will be included in an exhibition devoted to the "Pictures" milieu at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring. He is currently the subject of an extensive survey at the Drawing Center in New York.) If Mullican was interested from the beginning in the various ways people engage with representations and endow them with particular significance, he was also deeply aware--like so many other artists of the day--of the contextual modes of meaning and identification that were being engineered by mass-media photography and film, and subsequently filtered into everyday life: the feedback loop of cathexis that lies at the heart of commercial enterprise.

Perhaps what has most set Mullican apart, however, is his willingness to expand his artistic frame or, as in the case of "Glen," to render it as tenuously as possible. As early as 1978, he was subjecting himself to something akin to the treatment his stick figures now receive on the lecture circuit--performing while under hypnosis in an effort to articulate the effect of different framing devices on our comprehension (both intellectual and psychological) of the material world. "I originally sought the most extreme kind of theater I could come up with," Mullican recalls today, "where the people who were onstage believed that they were the characters they were portraying; where somehow they were not acting even while they were acting. Their psyches would portray a fiction, but the actors wouldn't have the normal relationship to that fiction. …

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