Interview on Curator with Graeme Mitchell

Graeme Mitchell interview by Anne Marie Taylor

Interview by Anne Marie Taylor

I met Graeme Mitchell at the opening of his first exhibition at Wilding Cran, in 2014. After speaking about his work, LA, and life in general, it was obvious he had a critical mind and articulate manner, in some part from schooling in literature at Oregon State University and living in New York for several years.  Well known as an editorial photographer of portraits for The New Yorker, The New York Times and WSJ Magazine, Mitchell has only recently--considering the span of his career--included fine arts in his practice.  In anticipation of his next solo exhibition at Wilding Cran (opening Saturday, April 8 in Los Angeles), I met with him at his studio on Slauson and Normandie, to catch up and see where this new body of work has taken him. 

The studio, fairly large, is set up with new paintings, along with older paintings I’d seen before, small "installational" sculptures of chicken wire and photographs, tables of paint, and stacks and stacks of printed images.  We sit in tall chairs by the recorder and delve right into the bigger questions. 

Anne Marie Taylor:  Would you describe your move from editorial and commercial photography toward fine art as a switch?  Transition?  Deviation?  How do you find that they inform each other?  Or are you working with a different set of concerns for each?

Graeme Mitchell:  I think about it as more of an evolution, because to me an evolution is something that happens both naturally and out of necessity, and that's how I felt when I added painting to my photo practice.  I think it’s important to explain my history in photography.  It's all I've ever done, the only job I've ever had, and it was largely based on commercialism.  Once I began to work within an art practice, I started to use drawing and video alongside photography.  Still, I kept finding that photography was putting me in these cul de sacs.  I thought maybe it was because I’d done it since I was so young and I had all this information, all these things I had learned--I couldn't take a photograph without allusions and automatisms.  Or maybe the difficulty was that it was always based upon a commercial career.  But then I started to play with paint and I started to look at photography through painting, and something clicked.  It was a way of stripping away everything I knew about making pictures, and starting with something very, very basic.

This conversation about using painting now is difficult for me though, because generally I feel like I’m offered these narrow definitions of things; like you were this, now you're that.  And it makes it feel like there's a sense of leaving something... I don't really feel that.  You said this really interesting thing about how nobody talks about what happens when you get to a place, or when you realize you never actually do get to that place.  It makes sense, but sometimes it can be silly.  And it’s come up a lot lately, but it often is more about how to define or understand something than what is actually happening. 

I’ve come to understand one of the primary concerns of my work is pictures, and I wanted to try something, try to go deeper with this new medium, go further along this path that I've been walking.  And there’s nothing strange in that to me. 

AMT:  I feel that you're also an editor in almost every aspect; you even edit your speech.  You make so many versions of these paintings, apart from studies, that there's room for mistakes and for failure.  And that's basically how you learn, right?

GM:  It's also often the most interesting part of the work.  That's one of the reasons I really grasped onto painting--there were so many more opportunities for failure within it. When you're trying to understand pictures, almost on a philosophical level, like what they mean to you, every opportunity for failure is an opportunity for discovery.  

This is also what makes painting so frustrating, because there are no road marks at any point in this process.  With each mark you have no indicators of why something works or doesn't work, except your gut.  Seeing what is good, or what is there, is the most difficult part.  With painting, you're contending with that aspect of virtuosity--either trying to attain it, or to try to create friction against the idea of it.  Virtuosity isn’t really something you think about in photography.

But yes, that’s how I learn, through practice, trying and seeing.  The best advice I got when I first really started to get knocked around by painting was from a good friend, who said painting is pretty much about getting to work on it.

AMT:  Do you place yourself in the work, or is it more like you're a vessel of some kind, or a translator for the image which is a separate thing from you?  Your hand is in it, obviously, because you're making it, but are you personally involved in it, other than on a conceptual level?

GM:  There are two sides to that for me.  I often look more to literature, because when I hear writers talk about the process, it makes a lot of sense to me.  My bodies of work begin with a premise of cataloging what’s around me, a kind of journaling.  In that sense, it’s personal.  It's things around me that I start recording, and making piles and making pictures, and then only after I’m maybe halfway into a body of work am I able to step back and it begins to outline its edges.  It’s a very natural process.  I like for it to be wide open, something that can take on a life of its own.

In the actual making of the painting, I don't want any sense of me in it.  Even my hand, as you put it, is something I’m trying to distance myself from.  I like it to be ambiguous.  My presence isn’t useful in what I want the picture to achieve either in my making it or in my audience’s viewing it.  This goal of being apart from the work is fundamentally contradictory to a hand-painted picture, but that dualism is maybe the meaningful part to me.  With it, a sense of longing or searching can be manifested in the picture--it is art as a means to witnessing faith.  There’s just no ego in it.

Cage and Richter were extremely influential in that regard.  I didn't come from art, so I assumed for a long time that art had to have a level of expressionism in it, but they taught me that expression could be an operation of chance.  That chance is often how my hand happens to move when I stop thinking about it.

AMT:  It's also that sort of Cageian idea of putting a frame around something, like the ordinary or slightly askew situation. Because of its semi regal history, as soon as you make a painting of something, it becomes important.  Doing that with these images you find on the Internet is a strange juxtaposition.  It adds something to it, I think.

GM:  Someone could also see that as a gimmick, but I say that maybe because I don't see paintings as regal.  Or maybe I do, but not in the sense that it’s innate in their history.  Any art can be regal, and I think the tremendous thing about art is it can be so many things at once.  Some of these works have this bizarre sort of amateurism to them, but at the same time are not functioning at all as an amateur easel painting might.   I think art that I enjoy most when I'm seeing it--you just can't place it fast.  It creates this complication of being two things at once, or three things at once.  And it won’t tell you what it is, but it’s quiet and allows you to discover for yourself.

ARTFORUM Critics Pick

Catherine Fairbanks: Two Chimneys

Los Angeles
Catherine Fairbanks
939 South Santa Fe Avenue, Unit A
April 9–May 28

Two chimneys, Chimney Sculpture 1, 2015–16, and Chimney Sculpture 2, 2016, stand stark in the middle of the room. Hung on a corner wall are two horsehair weavings, Luce’s Fireplace 10 and 12, both 2014, reminiscent of brushes for sweeping ash. Four ceramic and papier-mâché jugs, Jug 1, 2016, and Pitcher Sculpture 4, 5, and 9 (all 2015), are stored in the back. And five embossed drawings on paper—abstractions of lamps, pitchers, and busts—authenticate this show’s sense of shelter.

In “Two Chimneys,” Catherine Fairbanks’s techniques result in ordinary magic: flour and water can make bread, or in this case, paste for paper sculpture. Pressure and heat fire earthenware, and tension combined with dye raises paper. For the show’s two eponymous sculptures, Fairbanks worked without a frame, layering pile upon pile of paper strips to replicate a mainstay of a family home—the gathering place to eat or stay warm and dry.

Yet the works here are not humdrum craftwork borne from childhood nostalgia. Nor do they show signs of daily use: There’s no ash or soot, their edges don’t fray, and absent are any wine-stained rims. The jugs bear paper handles, a medium unsuited to serving liquids. If the chimneys were lit, they would burst into flame. While hearth, vessel, and light are usually humble symbols of offering and providence, the artist’s sculptures are stripped of life-giving necessity. Fairbanks attends to the common, raising the recesses of the domestic to the master’s surface.

By Meg Whiteford