Before Breakfast








Matt Mullican - Before Breakfast


(…) I’ll start at the bottom, which is the elements, it’s materiality(…) that would be the green area, the elemental, the physical. One step above that is what I call the real world. It’s the street, the house —it’s when we are not thinking about anything (…).

(…) the next world up is the world framed. And that would be the arts, the theatre, the picture, (…). That’s in the center. Above that, you have language, sign. And that would be in black and white. So the bottom is green, the world is blue, the world framed is yellow. And now we are in black and white, which is sign. And then on the top is the red, the subject. And the subject is really having to do with the feeling of the sign. It’s the relationship to that sign. So in a sense, the red is the meaning, meaning without physicality. (…) So at one end is subject without materials and at the other end is object without subject. Those are the bookends, and they’ve been in my work since the seventies.»1

In the early 1970s, when he was at Cal Arts in Los Angeles, Matt Mullican began to investigate the different types of relationships that his “person”, with his mental faculties, his senses, his body, and his knowledge, could establish with an image, with images in general. Mullican wanted to “enter” that space offered by any representation of reality with which we usually relate from a performative and creative perspective. Both language and photography had become part of the materials with which art was produced after several decades of authentic “big bang” in which the explosion of the fine art system had given way to what we now know as “contemporary art”. A direct descendant of the avant-garde, Mullican wanted to explore new spaces, materials and procedures to produce his work at a time when all possible inventions seemed to have been made. And those spaces appeared in an intermediate territory between the material world and the imagined world. Gradually, the interaction of that real world and the represented world gave rise to a cosmology, a visual discourse that organized it and gave it meaning. In that new cosmos, with certain resemblances to the space described by Euclidean geometry and governed by the theory of gravity, lived Glen, a fictitious character endowed with an activity parallel to that of the artist. In his studio, Glen worked, rested, thought, and acted within the margins of drawing’s two-dimensional, annotated corporeality.

Glen is not exactly Mullican but a representation of the artist in a state of hypnosis. The desire to “enter” inside images has led the artist to experiment on various occasions, through performances, creativity under the action and control of a hypnotist. In such a state there is a certain although, in scientific terms, indescribable alteration of consciousness through which the subconscious of the hypnotized person appears. “Glen is totally separate from the individual that I become under hypnosis. I have a whole bunch of theories about who that person is but we’ll just say that is who I am when I am in a trance state”. The world of signs and the parallel reality in which the consciousness of the artist and the character Glen move have given rise to numerous attempts to depict the intimate connection and interdependence between productive subjectivity and what we take for real, objectively demonstrable facts. Between these two poles all other things that exist are organized. That is the reason why the artist decided to organize everything around his own cosmology that would give meaning to the work, as well as serve as a grammar for its apparently infinite development of his own production that circulates in innumerable directions.

Perception, the functioning of the senses and what consciousness does with physical sensations is one of the pillars on which Mullican builds his work. Science and the theories of knowledge that support the scientific method tell us that knowing is a relationship between a subject that perceives and an object that is perceived and consciously studied. The senses give us information about the world external to us and the exercise of reason must prevent us from falling into the trap of momentary illusions -the senses can deceive us- and ensure the veracity of our judgments. For Mullican, light is the main element that makes it possible for the subject and the objects external to it to meet: “I still have this idea , that all I see are light patterns. So, when I am looking at anybody or anything (…) it’s all light. I am disengaged from It. And that includes an apparition and (…) everything from when I wake up in the morning to when I have breakfast to when I am walking down the Street; when I run into whoever I´m running into; when I am talking to you; when I am performing”. Colors, in fact, may just be variations in how light bounces off the surfaces of objects: colors themselves might not exist.

Mullican’s oeuvre has been displayed through a wide variety of techniques and materials including painting, drawing, watercolors, rubbings, different methods of graphic, manual, mechanical or chemical reproduction, photography, sculpture, installations, performances, using practically any material at his fingertips, from the most traditional to the most innovative, from the rudest or unexpected to the most delicate. There are innumerable categories and modes of production that he has been investigating, combining and alternating throughout his career. Let’s remember that Mullican is one of the pioneering artists in experimenting with virtual reality at the beginning of the 1990s, that is, before the virtual was a reality. In 1991 I was among the small group of people who attended a presentation of “Five into One” (one of the very first public commissions to use virtual reality) at Tourcoing and I remember the strong impression caused by the spectacular volume of the hardware needed to house said interactive work: a tower, a building composed of multiple interconnected hard drives. Mullican had (virtually) realized his desire to “enter” the images and to make that experience part of his work.


The title of the exhibition does not summarize or illustrate it: it is about the temporal coordinates of a crucial moment in every day of life. Breakfast punctuates the symbolic and physiological beginning of daily tasks, for those who lead a solar life. For Americans, breakfast is the most important meal of the day and the foods eaten at it may even be heavy in consistency. A series of 16 photographs shows us what the artist’s eyes see before breakfast every day, that is, from waking up, that moment in which one leaves the world of sleep and the dreams one dreams of, going through all those activities that they transfer to the material world, to consciousness, to gravity and to Euclidean space. Before breakfast is a symbolic and functional transition between worlds, between states of consciousness, towards wakefulness and the long journey of everything we do “during the day”. But the title of the exhibition also places this show between two recent performances: In “Waking Up” the artist was under the effects of hypnosis and it took place on October 15, 2022 in Lübeck on the occasion of the artist’s exhibition upon receiving the Possehl Preis that year. The second performance, “Breakfast” took place in New York on April 1 of this year in the context of his exhibition at the Peter Freeman Gallery. The present exhibition therefore has a symbolic framework but above all a dramaturgical one in the representation of what could explain the meaning of life in the routine or the pseudo-mechanical acts that lead us through it.

The exhibition that we are attending today at the Cristina Guerra Gallery does not contain obvious technological displays or the expression of an encyclopedic-scientific intention. This is a “cabinet” exhibition, an essay where the recent past of its production is related to works that are presented here for the first time. In this selection of works it is worth noting contrasts of material and size. In the first place, we find Untitled (2019), one of the banners similar to those that featured in some of the artist’s most impressive exhibitions during the 1990s. With flat colors and a combination of basic geometric shapes, these works, which usually float from ceilings or hang high on the walls, they reproduce in interior spaces typical signs and dimensions of monumental environments. The symbology of the flags and the proportion of large public spaces make us think of crowded gatherings, ceremonies, demonstrations or sports competitions. Mullican has stripped them of ideological or commercial meaning to refer them to their pure sign materiality. The work is presented in a curious configuration, half hanging on the wall, half spread out on the floor, as if it were “sitting” and leaning against the wall. The volumetric simplicity of the canvas has been complicated here by becoming a virtual pedestal, a three-dimensional sculpture that no longer functions only as a sign; it has created its own architectural space.

As we have seen in the quote with which this text begins, perhaps it is good to remember that, in his maps and cosmogonic cartographies, Mullican associates certain colors with specific “regions” represented on them. Thus, green represents essential things, red is associated with spiritual values, yellow with manifestations of consciousness, blue with unconscious acts, and black with the world of communication and language. Back in the world of intersubjectivity, red and black together have historically determined meanings. And a flag with an empty circle in its center can also make us think of a sudden change of regime after a revolution, a political self-metamorphosis that requires the disappearance of the old emblems while waiting for the creation of the new ones. But we are not in the world of intersubjectivity but in the one that is proper to the artist. The colors red and black symbolize the encounter of the subject and the sign, in Mullican’s cosmological representations. Five iron panels, in fact a work displayed in the public space previously, represent the five worlds of Mullican’s cosmology.

Database (2020) has the appearance of the model, or the skeleton of a Gothic construction, if we think of the stylized forms and its proportional height to the base. The metaphor between the organization of data in digital environments, what we now call “the cloud” and architecture -or urbanism- is already classic, especially in Mullican’s work, where the digital, immaterial, ethereal and apparently ubiquitous, is permanently in dialogue with materials, techniques and construction forms apparently archaic or, at least, belonging to the pre-modern world (pyramids, domes, arches,...). Object, sculpture or model, Database is accompanied by a work in augmented reality displayed on an adjacent mobile tablet with which the spectator can navigate inside the same structure as represented in the model while inside the real space of the gallery and the show.

Pre-modern, modern, post-modern concepts have been and are subjected to tremendous semantic pressure, pressure-tension that translates our own impatience with knowing how to qualify our time, our present, what we have to share with others. How far, in fact, is the digital “cloud” from the “data architecture” that we used as a metaphor until very recently.

I would like to conclude with a reflection linked to a large set of watercolors on wood that, although modest in size, dominate the environment of the exhibition. I always imagined wood as a bottomless pit for the moisture that gives life to watercolor, as if no matter how much color was applied to the surface, the image would never appear, which would be infinitely and permanently absorbed by the material. But looking at the works in the artist’s house-archive-studio, my concern disappears: a watercolor on wood is very similar to a watercolor on cardboard or on paper. The rough texture of the support can be appreciated, which gives the image a certain roughness, lacking in sharpness. The shapes and colors seem to blur into the shadows and the colors change. These are works where the relationship between background and figure is declined; in them we see landscapes, terrestrial or galactic, with a central area occupied in most cases by the motif of the circle. The target, the planet earth, the sun, stars…, are associated shapes, again, with ancient and modern signs and symbols, past or future codes. Most of these works are executed in black and white and the intermediate tones between them. Very few of them contain color, as if the light that initially dazzled the artist, and which should allow us to see and see colors at the same time, had become monotonous or dry.

Matt Mullican has chosen as a sign of the exhibition one of the few watercolors on wood that has color. And it’s blue. It represents the world, its material elements. In it we see what looks like a planet earth turned into planet sea, because no dry land, no continents or islands, no solid surface can be seen. Everything is liquid, it is all blue. Everything is water after the melting of the polar caps and endless floodings everywhere: we already live submerged in it like fish, . As the artist told us at the beginning…”the world is blue”.

Bartomeu Marí

May 2023

1 All quotes in this tect are taken from the interview “Matt Mullican with Dan Cameron”. In The Brooklyn Rail, New York, Abril 2023, pp. 21-27

Website desenvolvido por Bondhabits. Agência de marketing digital e desenvolvimento de websites e desenvolvimento de apps mobile