In true artist fashion, Matt Mullican walked on stage in all black attire and began his speech called “Details From an Imaginary Universe: A Lecture in Three Parts Spanning 35 years of Work,” by forewarning the audience that he would have his eyes closed with his head tilted back facing the light while he spoke. He was going to start on the blackboard, or in this case a white board, and try to remember how it all got started.
“I have to make sense of it for you,” he said.
After 20 years of lectures, this is the best technique for him to recount the story of how his art career began and why his latest work both offends and intrigues its audiences.
Mullican spoke to a large group of CSU students and some Fort Collins residents at the Griffin Concert Hall in the University Center for the Arts, 1400 Remington St. Monday night. A collection of his work, owned by Mark and Polly Addison, residents of Boulder, is currently on display in the Clara Hatton Gallery, located in the Visual Arts Building through April 21.
Mullican began his story at the California Institute for the Arts, where he graduated in 1974. He was studying art and focused his own work on light and how objects were defined by their reflections.
In studying light he started to focus more on the objects he was looking at. Facing the dry erase board, black marker in hand, Mullican added a stick figure to the drawing of a three dimensional, empty room he calls an art studio. Complete with a house plant and a calendar on the wall, he tells the audience that the stick figure’s name is Glenn and he decided many years ago that stick figures live lives too.
e recounted his history with Glenn, who he later explained was a real childhood friend, describing the 500 drawings he drew years ago depicting Glenn acting out everything from pinching himself in the arm, to feel pain and dying.
“I wanted to draw a real dead person,” Mullican said.
In his efforts to accurately portray Glenn’s death, Mullican called the city morgue and asked if he could take a picture of a dead body. The person on the other line assumed the worst and promptly hung up on him before he could finish his request. Luckily, he had a friend at Yale University who was studying medicine and happened to be in possession of a cadaver.
Mullican told the story of his time with the cadaver as if it were a normal every-day activity. Pictures were taken of him sticking his finger in the mouth of a dead body and screaming in its ear in effort to wake it up.
“The face is where life exists,” he explained. “When you die you become an object.”
His interest in objects, be it a body or the contents of the bathroom of his apartment, led him to see past the object and focus on the environment in which it existed. He saw characters in comic strips and wondered about their physical reality, which moved his art to revolve around the differences between the meaning of something and its material worth.
“When I was younger, I believed that fate controlled my life,” he said after telling the story of his first nightmare as a child.
As a child his parents showed him pictures of themselves before he was born. In order to understand and explain this phenomenon, he imagined a conveyer belt pushing babies down the line until they chose a chute with their last name above it and were born to the couple whose last name they selected.
With the question of where he came from answered, he added the second part to the drawing which was of fate watching his life unfold on a television with “his” hand on a lever. This was symbolic of fate being responsible for everything that happened in his life.
The third and final addition to the drawing, which now formed a ‘Y’ shape and took up half of the board, was a “classical” version of heaven on one end and hell on the other.
Mullican continued to recount his story while drawing smaller pictures along the bottom of the board that represented the different stages of man and how people see and interpret other people. These symbols were similar to the ones featured in Mullican’s exhibit in the Hatton Gallery and comprise most of his art.
For the second part of his lecture, Mullican showed several slides of his work. He has had art on display in both the U.S. and Europe through mediums ranging from stone floor maps to large hanging flags. Each piece is adorned with symbols and objects, including those photos taken of the cadaver.
To conclude his lecture, Mullican showed a video of what he calls, “the most exciting part of the work I’m doing.” The black and white video featured Mullican in a hypnotic trance.
It was taped during a performance in which he was hypnotized and then walked around on a stage filled with a cot and tape laid out on the floor in the shape of a square. The tape showed Mullican yelling “it’s hot” and then touching the square and screaming.
He did this in front of 250 people and now describes it as embarrassing for the audience to watch, though he believes that he is in a trance state for most of his life. While the tape was playing Mullican stood next to the projection screen laughing along with the audience and watching intently, noting that “he was crazy,” and “he just didn’t want to go to sleep.”
He also told Monday’s audience that one woman who watched the performance thought he was making fun of the mentally ill.
“Being in a trance is a pretty druggy situation,” he said. “The other work I’m very much in control of and this work I’m not. It’s as if I’m becoming the Glenn figure. It’s very sensual… I’m interested in the autistic look, but I’m not autistic.”
Mullican explained that the hypnosis performances are a way for him to “see the world unframed in everyday life,” and audience members agreed.
“I thought it was very eye opening,” said freshman English major Erin Giacomelli. “It broadened how I think about the mind and body, but I didn’t think the video was funny. I thought it was disturbing.”
Senior art major Meggan Reed also thought Mullican’s lecture was unique.
“His ideas about trances takes on a whole other area of art,” she said.
Mullican’s next project is entitled “Behind the Mark,” and will involve the artist being in a trance and dealing with what he sees behind images.
Disturbing, offensive, enlightening, or inspiring, Matt Mullican sees his art as “unearthing information about contemporary life” and his views are on display for everyone to see and interpret for themselves.
Marissa Hutton-Gavel can be reached at email@example.com