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ART REVIEW : In Between Common, Grand: Matt Mullican

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TIMES ART CRITIC

Matt Mullican has lodged his multifaceted art somewhere between the decidedly common stuff of the everyday and the grand theoretical systems regularly concocted by modern culture in ambitious attempts to extract meaning from it.

He tries to crack open the calcified familiarity of those systems in order to banish the rote thinking that inevitably comes to dominate them. Consider his art as creating a collision between light and the Enlightenment, and you’ll have some idea of the way his calculating yet oddly sweet work operates.

“Matt Mullican: The Spectrum of Knowledge,” which opened Saturday at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is a concise and exceptionally well-selected show of the Santa Monica-born, New York-based artist’s work, principally from the last five years. Composed of just 13 pieces handsomely installed in a single, subdivided gallery, the show still suggests the breadth of Mullican’s often unusual materials, for which the terms “painting” and “sculpture” aren’t quite appropriate.

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A sequence of five, pedestal-bound objects, for instance, repeats the basic format of a cube atop a thin podium, each crowned with a different form (a sphere, a hemisphere, an open square, etc.). The use of pedestals, long since banished from the arena of contemporary sculpture, conveys the old-fashioned art-idea that these carefully crafted objects have been elevated above the realm of the ordinary.

Yet, made from aluminum smoothly lacquered in flat, bright colors, these crisp geometric objects seem more like three-dimensional signage than traditional sculptures. Likewise, the only nominal paintings in the show are also signs: graphic images reminiscent of the kind of universal logos seen in international airports or government buildings, painted in gray lead paint on paper and sometimes paired with the artist’s name, printed in big, block letters.

Signage is also indicated by a cotton banner composed of simple, geometric shapes hanging at one end of the room, and by four fluorescent light boxes hanging at the other. The light boxes display color transparencies, which are actually stills taken from a computer-drawn aerial tour of imaginary architectural landscapes (a monitor adjacent continuously plays this video-disc tour). The illuminated stills are “photographs” of places that exist only in the electronic circuitry of a computer “mind.”

Nearby, four simply constructed plywood tables hold a variety of items. A suite of 16 prints, laid out under glass, describes a cosmological map of a complex universe; a long, blown-glass sculpture of transparent, interlocking “bubbles” looks like a fragile molecular model, and a small model of an outdoor band shell is juxtaposed with some rocklike forms, all made of plastic resin, computer-designed and laser-cut.

Together, the tables suggest informative displays at a science fair. They’re “exhibits,” to use terminology more appropriate to a natural history museum than to an art museum where the more stately and formal word “exhibition” holds sway.

Nothing in Mullican’s show is titled. Signage supposedly conveys very specific information, but the absence of titles throws the reading of this highly organized imagery back into the spectator’s lap. The art is determined to have an unimpeded dialogue with you.

Perhaps the most revealing piece is the large group of rubbings that covers one entire wall of the gallery. Made by rubbing an oil paint-stick across paper laid on top of printing plates, the imagery is derived from an early 19th-Century encyclopedia. It charts a variety of mechanical and scientific systems, from hydrodynamics, herpetology and heraldry to geography, electricity and mineralogy. One hundred and forty rubbings line the wall, while more than 300 others are housed in 16 slip-cases neatly stacked in a wooden bookcase.

A number of things rub against one another in this beautiful compendium of rubbed images. One is the mechanical process of machine printing, which is the way the original encyclopedia was made, and Mullican’s use of a sensuous, tactile process of hand-rubbing. By making this work an edition of 10 identical sets, he imitated the multiplicity of mechanical reproduction; but, because the 10 sets are made by hand, all are inevitably different.

Rubbing is the most rudimentary printing process imaginable, because the image is made directly from the object it means to represent. So Mullican’s rubbings don’t just represent such knowledge systems as hydrodynamics and herpetology, they go beyond them to represent a meta-system that encompasses them: The image is of the modern encyclopedia as a codified system of knowledge.

The authoritative information in an encyclopedia is poetically transformed into sensory knowledge, which is fluid and transient. Mullican neatly breaks up and demolishes the orthodox way we encounter meaning.

A kind of death is therefore central to his work (which clearly also owes a debt to the cosmological abstractions of his father, the septugenarian painter Lee Mullican). And since it recalls nothing so much as an old-fashioned grave-rubbing, the medium of this piece is memorializing, too. It records a way of life that has passed, while trying to keep us wide-eyed and aware in order to grapple with the new world that is unfolding.

Which, as it turns out, is not a bad definition of what a museum does. Mullican’s art reveals the context within which the modern “spectrum of knowledge” inevitably is framed--in this case, the context of the art museum, which is to the categorized schools of painting and sculpture displayed inside what the 19th-Century encyclopedia is to the codified systems of heraldry and geography printed within.

That’s why Mullican was an inspired choice for a commission for a permanent work at the Santa Barbara Museum--the first in the small institution’s 50-year history. Commissioned by the women’s board to commemorate the golden anniversary, it’s a four-part work that begins on the front patio.

A black, etched-granite paver set into the floor records a Darwinian-style evolutionary chart, with protozoa at the bottom and familiar animals at the top. You then proceed through the museum and its artistic displays to the rear exit, where the three remaining elements are installed in the stairwell of a light-filled atrium.

Large rubbings on canvas face one another across the stairwell, each depicting a different cosmological map that incorporates images of Santa Barbara. Finally, the formal, geometric pattern of those maps is repeated in the lead structure of a glass window, which has been mounted atop an existing atrium window that overlooks the city. Light streams through the patterned glass to illuminate the interior.

It would be a mistake to think of Mullican’s work as some sort of prescription for a brave new world of sleek, uniform identity in an otherwise nebulous electronic universe. Instead, he maps the world as it already is, and just at the moment it begins to disappear. A melancholic quality does imbue Mullican’s art, but it’s the melancholy that accompanies any awareness of impending renewal.

* Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., (805) 963-4364, through July 19. Closed Mondays.


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