In the few months I have been living in Oregon, I haven’t managed to trek the half-dozen blocks to Portland Art Museum but, on three occasions, I have rallied to drive three hours to the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. I’ll admit: the first visit was partially motivated by the Turrell Skyspace and a video by Pipilotti Rist. Visits two and three, however; were entirely about Like a Valentine, the mid-career retrospective of Seattle-based artist Jeffry Mitchell, which, sadly, closed to the public just last week.
You’d think that after spending so much time with a body of work, I’d be overrun with brilliant insight bound-up in pithy phrasing. Not so. In visiting and revisiting the exhibition, I became increasingly beguiled but also bewildered by Mitchell’s mysterious lexicon of flora and fauna rendered in clay, ink, and paint. There is a certain wildness to Mitchell’s practice, an untethered spirit that speaks to a purely imaginative space that is almost antagonistic to reason. It brought to mind a recent essay in which Borriaud claimed that, “the fictional is to contemporary art what flatness was to modern art;” meaning, the site of fiction represents a recent iteration of creative autonomy where makers are able to reject reality in order to connect with the real—in the Lacanian sense. Now, I hate to go all academic on you B@S, but I feel that the walrus wearing spectacles speaks for itself.
Clearly, there is satire under Mitchell’s layers of gilded sweetness. It’s only a matter of time before a collection of pieces make their way to David Walsh and his Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. Sex, or more appropriately, not having it, is an ever-present theme throughout Like a Valentine. From the thinly veiled erotica of Rosy Peonies (series, 2004), to the more explicit The Tomb of Club Z, (2006), Mitchell’s objects delight in their precious perversity. Not only do many of his sculptures elicit the titillation that only a well-placed hole in the rear of a bear can solicit, but moreover, his material preference and nod to a decorative arts aesthetic speak to a unique brand of sexual repression that comes, firstly: from the act of creating needlepoint samplers and watercolor trompe l‘oeil; and secondly: from relentlessly fussing with their arrangement within a domestic interior.
This is not to say Mitchell’s work is the easy one-liner—the fart joke or the flower painting—of contemporary art; rather, his sculpture and works on paper are composed of complex layers of coded references derived from sources as diverse as Kubrick to the Kabbalah. By openly employing and embracing cliché, Mitchell is able to unpack the imaginings, desires, and trepidations of the self-proclaimed “gay folk artist.” Further, his manner of execution, which some have termed sloppy, extends beyond the conversation relating to skill and de-skill to a realm of genuine and endearing sincerity. Mitchell is nothing but intent on his craft; indeed, his unique style emerges from a refreshing respect for material authenticity that allows for clay to be clay, a poster to be a poster, and a power cord to be a power cord.
Exiting the exhibition, visitors are pointed to the door by a sign that I assume is a felicitous wink to Emma Goldman reading: Keep Dancing. I can say with absolute certainty that after my initial journey through Like a Valentine, I was ready for the revolution. I spoke to Jeffry Mitchell at Henry Art Gallery.
A special thanks to Wayne Bund for his assistance with this interview!
Jeffry Mitchell: When I made [The Tomb of Club Z, (2006)], it completely came to me as a vision—there was no real story to it, other than I thought [Club Zodiac] was closing when I made this piece, which turned out not to be the case… It was commissioned by some prominent collectors in town and, because it was a commissioned work, I had a budget to fabricate elements. To create the screen, I hired my friend Leo Burke who helped me use his tablet to create a digital drawing. What’s interesting is that through the process of digitization—translating the drawing into a vector file—the line becomes generalized. The program rounds them out in a certain, almost cartoony way, and my work is cartoony anyway, so the process exaggerates that. So then we got this plastic plywood, which is a marine building material, and used a CNC router to cut out my drawing. My friend Larry Sommers, who has since passed away, was a printmaker and papermaker, helped me bludgeon out the paper pulp and press it into the molds.
The paper on the backside is again a digital drawing based on a William Morris wallpaper pattern; the one that was on the cover of the Bee Gees album. Making this piece, the digitization produced the lines in multiple. The effect is sort of hippy-Victoriana-gay-disco—the lines were meant to look like lines of coke—screen-printed in white on a silver mirror-like ground. The production of the whole screen was so elaborate, I could never have done it if friends of mine hadn’t helped. The crummy part of the installation is what I made: the ceramic model of the bathhouse. It’s three floors with a staircase going up the center, which was done from memory… I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a bathhouse before, but it has very mixed feelings for me. One of those feeling is shame of course, and the secretive nature of going to a bathhouse to have anonymous sex. That’s why the model is behind the decorative screen. There’s a whole reoccurring thing in my work involving the idea of a proscenium. This piece in particular is all about theater—facing the audience—so you have what’s in front and what’s behind it both literally and figuratively. This is a very literal sort of construction of the face, and then what’s behind it.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So why the vitrine—an additional screen removing the viewer from the work?
JM: I was thinking about a piece by Charles LeDrey called Milk and Honey. It also includes a vitrine and, inside the glass shell, he sculpted a miniature version of every pot he had ever seen—sort of a catalog of ceramics. It’s an exquisite piece because everything is miniature but nothing lacks detail, and each clearly communicates what its model was.
I associate the vitrine with looking at Chinese funerary sculptures in museums. They’re always behind glass, so they’re always tinted to what the tint of the glass is and they have that kind of airless quality; yet, they have a kind of presence too—a funny time travel thing… It doesn’t seem old at all it seems completely present and alive. So this sort of weird timelessness in reference to something funerary—the living and the dead—was where I was going with this.
SMP: You’ve mentioned previously an interest in reincarnation and the idea of a spiritual send-up or connection to the astral plane. I’m curious, how was that interest sparked and how has it evolved in your work?
JM: I think it has something to do with my struggle with Christianity and searching for some other tradition or form or philosophical explanation for why we’re here. Reincarnation always comes up as comforting and hopeful in that death isn’t the end and heaven is not necessarily the answer. Also, I feel like I grew up in such a world devoid of cultural heritage: the western United States. I wasn’t in-line with any aboriginal traditions or with any European immigrant traditions, which you have in other regions. I had this experience in my late-20s when I went to Philadelphia for the first time and I went into an Irish neighborhood bar and I saw a room that looked liked it was full of my relatives. It totally shocked me to feel like: oh my god, I am actually part of some sort of tribe! This created somewhat of a yearning to be part of a tribe, and the excitement that I had the freedom to feel a part of any tribe I felt an affinity toward, like, say Korean. At this point, reincarnation became as plausible an explanation as anything for that feeling of affinity and connection. Catholic is also another tribe—I’m sure the imprint is probably pretty strong—and, I guess if I had any lineage, I think that would certainly be one strong one.
One of the miraculous things about clay is that so many humans have had, what must be, a very similar experience with that material. Maybe painting has that too, or drawing, or mark-making, but there’s really something inherent to the manipulation of clay. Fiber too, but textiles are so fragile that it’s impossible to have the extensive record of what has been made like there is with ceramics. Clay is so amazingly permanent, and we have access to this history through the objects themselves and through scholarship around them. I have this book of British 2000-years of household pottery called If These Pots Could Talk, which I think is hilarious… But I’m rambling. Do you believe in reincarnation? [I’ll spare B@S readers my remarks on this subject!] … You’re right: it’s hard to know. But it’s kind of nice that in art you don’t have to prove anything, so you can make these guesses or suggestions and hang there with the work even if it can’t be proven.
Wayne Bund: I’m curious about the holes—really standout in the peony pieces—but also included in so much of your ceramic work as a small, well-placed point that interrupts the plane. Are they a point of entry, a glory hole, a vehicle for a connection with astral space?
JM: If you put a hole in a pot it becomes a sculpture, and if you put a hole in a flower picture, it’s the drain that empties it of cliché. Flower pictures exist in a realm all their own, and the hole is a way to open it up—the category of flower picture—and allow something else in… To me, it’s like a song that’s like an anthem. When you hear it, it has a very specific meaning but then you sing it over and over—which is the nature of an anthem—and by repeating it, you empty it of any kind of power or meaning that it has. By repeating it and it becomes so empty—it becomes an empty thing—and it might lead a new life as an empty thing or have something else fill it up.
SMP: So, in effect, relcaiming flowers and bunny rabbits is your way of owning the cliché?
JM: Totally. But the holes also are there to re-sexualize the flowers, which are of course are sexual. So it’s a glory hole, it’s a halo, and it is what turns a drawing into a sculpture, making it an object.
SMP: Is that something that your work has been criticized for—the heavy-handedness of cliché—being the gay artist who creates ceramic sculptures of cocks?
JM: No… Well, not to my face! During the 90s there was a time that I was really ambivalent about being a gay artist, because there was so much gay identity work going on and, of course, you always want to be part but not a part of the group. What was that that Groucho Marx said? Anyway, now, I couldn’t be happier to be identified—I don’t care. So if I’m making cocks, it’s corny and it’s obvious on one level, but then again, I’ve always found it interesting that culturally, we expect artists to behave in certain ways, and being contrary is one of those things that we expect from artists. So when they fall into that realm of making what can be expected or what is cliché, then everyone is disappointed. An artist looses his/her edge when something is too pop or too likeable. For example, even someone like Calder—Calder is an immensely likeable artist, but that doesn’t make his work any less significant—I think Calder is an amazing artist, his work is just about something else—it’s scatological even—like free flowing imagination. I think I really work around that construct all the time by picking flowers and rabbits and all the most predictable locations and containers for expression that are domestic and populist and everywhere! Flowers and animals are motifs that every culture and every kind of human expression has held.
So much of my work has to do with sex and my fear that I’ll have no access to sex, and how weird that is—as an animal—to be sensitive to that. It’s every animal’s right in nature—sex—and it’s strange to have that fear that it might not be available. So, sublimation of Eros—and that’s not uncommon—pops up in other kinds of expression such as knitting, chopping, crocheting, cooking, building, and through culture—civilization itself. In a completely erotic society, there would be no buildings, there would be no decorative arts. Culture depends on the suppression of Eros. I’m kind of making this up, but what I’m saying is that civilization depends on some kind of social agreement that we can’t have sex all of the time the way that men want to at least—and I don’t know about women—but maybe women want to as well. This brings me to Stanley Kubrick, whose work I find really interesting. His mantra is that all men want to do is either fuck it or kill it. The last words in “Eyes Wide Shut:” let’s fuck. And I have to say that I do think it would help a lot of the world’s ills if people were fucking, but when you suppress the urge to create in one sense, it reveals itself through another.
SMP: Kubrick appears again in Peace on Earth, (1994), yes?
JM: In Dr. Strangelove, the recall code is P.O.E., which is either Peace on Earth, ironically or Purity of Essence. Kubrick’s whole body of work emphasizes that men are monsters and humanity’s whole drive is to dominate, create, have sex, and ultimately kill everything… Peace on earth is such, again, a clichéd and probably impossible notion, but it is a nice one. This piece was made in 1994 for the King County—and I don’t know what it was called then—but for the office that did HIV testing and AIDS services. Now, HIV testing is a very different thing—it’s no less anxious—but it happens instantly. Back in the day you had to wait two weeks and it was excruciating. So, my intention was to make something that felt homey, would be a bit distracting, and take people away from the task at hand. When I think about domesticity, I think about Dutch interiors as being a kind of clichéd version. When I was a kid, I heard that Dutch children slept in cabinets, and I thought that was the coolest thing. What’s safer and more comforting than a small, enclosed cabinet?!
Although I’ve never been in a Dutch interior, I have—through pictures—gotten an idea of what a Dutch interior would resemble. As has been pointed out, my pots look nothing like Delft with its back-and-forth between Chinese and European blue-and-white. They actually resemble German gray-and-white salt-fired ceramic, but I think the intent comes across. For the furniture, I drew from the European tradition of displaying a symmetric arrangement of pots in your home, and I used woodburning to create the graphic surface. Now, when I was a kid, everyone had burned themselves on a woodburning tool. In fact, I don’t think anyone ever completed a craft project without doing some woodburning! There must be boxes and boxes of good starts from woodburning projects that have ended up in thrift stores—representing all this hope—half completed. There’s pathos and a humor to that! So, when I look at this, the thing that I’m kind of impressed by is the fact that, (and I try to do this with most of my work), I’ve visibly invested enough labor into the piece so that the object has value—if only in that! This really does have a kind of value based on the amount of time I spent woodburning, which was significant, and looking at it now, it’s really quite good.
SMP: While your work relates formally to decorative arts, it speaks equally to an entirely internal, fictive inclination. How do you consider and draw from the imaginary?
JM: It’s the freedom of imagination that is salvatory. It’s the dream of heaven, it’s the dream of paradise, and, in the imaginary, it can fully exist. It has the limits of physicality and materiality, but in your imagination, possibility seems limitless, and I do think that I’m making work to soothe myself somehow or to overcome something.
So with this project, [Within a Motherfucking Budding Grove,] the prototypes were clay. I made a latex mold by painting on a medium-thick layer of latex that I peeled off and then cast with two-part catalyzed plastic. Do you know the Canaletto paintings in Venice? They’re Northern Italian, 18th century landscape paintings that depict Venetian architecture in a style that’s exaggerated and just super horizontal. Along with Canaletto, I was considering Japanese landscapes, which are typically vertical, and I wanted to make a horizontal landscape become a vertical one. And there are two additional things that were influential here: those Brice Marsden jade-green, encaustic paintings that just have that brilliant luminosity; and early Guston, where there’s all this kind of heavy, impasto, art making in the center and they sort of smooth out in the edges, and, of course, his work gets very cartoony. So I made this horizontal landscape with figures and foliage—an inorganic black box [from the Kabbalah] being reclaimed by nature—then when you flip it vertically, it becomes abstracted in a very Guston-like way. The title, In a Motherfucking Budding Grove, is like the English translation of one of Proust’s titles—Les Temps Perdu—combined with Prince—Sexy Motherfucker—who I’m a big fan of. There’s poetry there.
SMP: So your inclination toward the imaginary is not really coming from a critical place—being critical from reality?
JM: Only in a roundabout way, I suppose.
SMP: I’m curious, does fiction feed into your idea of the stage—beyond the space of exhibition—relating the notion of the stage to the work itself as a space for the imaginary to be realized in a theatrical sense?
JM: I guess it comes back to what a powerful impulse it is to make art, make artifice, and make theater. There are many kinds of sharing that are too intense, or too boring. If I tell you my dreams, bless you if you’re interested! Your dreams are so interesting to you, but other people’s dreams are torturous; however, if you realize imagination through this artifice—which humans do really well—then dreams become more interesting and you can get people to share. I do think that getting people to share is a hugely important motivation. It is useful sometimes to have things be open-ended, or confusing, or illegible, or mysterious, and to leave it up to the viewer to fill in that space.
SMP: I have to ask: what’s the story with the title?
JM: The thing that I’ve always admired about kids’ crafts—especially with young children—but for any age, valentines create a kind of freedom that doesn’t require the maker to be skilled, just to be sincere. If something is like a valentine, the requirement is only that you make something with a full heart. Oftentimes, it’s the struggle with craft or even the crapiness of it that embodies the charm of affection. The valentine is a kind of liberated form that everyone can participate in and, in fact, be successful at making—it doesn’t require any kind of virtuosity or mastery.
Jeffry Mitchell lives and works in Seattle, WA. He is represented by Ambach & Rice, (Los Angeles), and Pulliam Gallery, (Portland), and his works are in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the Philadelphia Art Museum, the New York Public Library, the Portland Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and Western Bridge Museum among others. His mid-career retrospective, Like a Valentine, curated by Sara Krajewski, was on view at Henry Art Gallery October 27, 2012 – January 27, 2013.