When I think of art created from an altered state of mind or from the subconscious, I immediately go to the automatic drawing practices of the Surrealists, or of art brut and “outsider art.” Art brut, literally “raw art,” is a term coined by artist Jean Dubuffet in the mid-1940s to describe work made outside of the established art world. Over the years it has been used to categorize art created by the mentally ill, the incarcerated, and the formally untrained. One aspect of art brut that fascinated Dubuffet was its intuitive and automatic nature. What he called its “pure and authentic creative impulses” influenced him and many of his counterparts. Outsider-art historian Roger Cardinal wrote of the term, “Art brut should above all be seen as an art of the subjective, the engrossed pursuit of inner obsessions, sign-systems and configurations.”
A new acquisition by artist Matt Mullican, Untitled (Learning from That Person’s Work: Room 1) (2005), was recently installed at MoMA as part of the exhibition Sites of Reason: A Selection of Recent Acquisitions. Looking at Mullican’s work I am instantly struck by its parallels with art brut and other automatic drawing styles. Since the 1970s Mullican has been experimenting with hypnosis to create art that both examines his subconscious, and functions as a strategy for breaking from the patterns of everyday life. Working under these hypnotically induced intoxications or psychoses, Mullican becomes his alter ego, what he refers to as that person—an ageless, genderless being that inhabits his physical body. That person’s reality is documented through a series of performances wherein he draws, counts, and writes with ink on large sheets of easel paper (as seen in the video below). The finished drawings are attached to queen-sized bed sheets in a grid-like pattern, and hung through a maze of installation rooms that acts as a diagram of that person’s reality (or, arguably, of Mullican’s subconscious).
What is interesting is that Mullican himself is a trained artist, someone involved in the established art scene, but that person may or may not be—even Mullican is unsure. The process of creation allows him to seamlessly move between these two worlds, unclear of where the distinction ends between what could be art of the insane, the subconscious, and the art of the formally trained. In a recent conversation between curator David Platzker and Mullican, the artist recounted a time when he began to act like that person while not under hypnosis, and his children worriedly told him he was actually becoming that person. Perhaps Mullican has found a way to successfully tap the subconscious, in the spirit of the Surrealists, albeit a little too closely.