The first time I visited “Like a Valentine: The Art of Jeffry Mitchell” at the Henry Art Gallery; I was overwhelmed by the amount of work and the smell of plywood. The space is transformed to feel like home with lamps, wooden plinths, and warm lighting. This transformation is most evident in Some Things and Their Shadows. Overall, the work varies from prints, ceramics, and installations that demonstrate or critic craft and fine art. However, I was left with many questions on the artistic merit and presentation of several works.
At first glance, I found the work too decorative and I questioned how the work would change if the artist was a woman. Throughout, his work the use of pastel color, flower motifs, and animals such as bears, rabbits, and elephants have a popular association with child and feminine decor. His work is accessible to a large audience because of this, but would the artistic technique be as greatly praised if the work was by a woman? Take for example; Peace on Earth a heavily ornate wooden cabinet with ceramics. The wood work is varnished and decorated with wood burning drawings. I felt that this was something I would encounter in my grandmothers kitchen. The presentation of it all can easily be dismissed as purely crafty and home decorative. Upon careful observation, I found that the imagery on the wood was much more interesting than I initially thought. How can the work be presented so that it’s not overlooked? While looking at the work, I found that décor is reminiscent of Dutch home interiors; the ceramic work is blue and white traditional of China and European work. The words on the pots are traditional Spanish idioms and they stand symmetrical throughout the entire work. The drawings are also Dutch with dollies and pretzels white organic flows of flowers. The craftsmanship is impressive and fine art but the presentation is about craft. Mitchell does this on purpose for many pieces of work; he values the human hand at work. I continued to question the validity of this statement throughout the exhibit.
I had a more compelling experience in the back gallery with the series of work from Some Things and Their Shadows. At first I noticed the materiality of the installation; it is scrap wood, paper, light bulbs and exposed cords. The light is dim and everything is positioned in a way that reveals the shadow of the objects as part of the work too. This emphasized an aura of spirituality that is present throughout the space. Because everything appears frail, I was afraid of knocking something over and walked through very slowly. One piece in the middle is a bull, vaguely distinguished from its stick figure composition, light bulb testicles, and pom-pom horns. The work is funny, simple, and meaningful. My first thought was Picasso’s bull as a metaphor of himself as well as a motif throughout his work. I especially recall the lithographs that reduce the bull to a stick figure, in the same way that Mitchell presents a bull with wood. In the catalogue, I later found that this specific piece is titled Picasso! To the right, Johnny Depp is a hanging work of paper skulls and letters. The lines drape from a wooden frame on the wall to a poll in the center the air moves the paper cut outs constantly. Again, the final result is not as important as the material of the work. The use of simple paper seems like a craft rather than fine art. However, the craft quality reveals that it’s a raw project that aims to represent an idea as quick and efficiently as possible. Here Mitchell simply tells us that he loves Johnny Depp. The structure that reminds me of a childhood makeshift fort and in a way Mitchell connects the audience to their own childhood.
Over and over again this space allowed a spiritual connection to your inner child, from cute animals, dim lights, and paper cut-outs. When I walked through it again, I found yet another layer to relate to the space. Growing up in a Mexican family, we continue to celebrate traditions such as the Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead. With my family this consists of making tissue paper decorations and baking sugar skulls. The holiday is about remembering your family members and honoring them with their favorite things. For a month our house is decorated in candles and skulls along with pictures of my grandparents and their favorite foods. In Some Things and Their Shadows I felt a strong connection. For one, the use of paper is similar to the traditional use of tissue paper in Mexico, which is used because it is cheap and versatile. Also at play is the use of the skull as a frequent motif which in Mexico is a humorous representation of death. Moreover, the use of shadows and light also represent an ominous and bright environment. Jeffry Mitchell’s work created a space that allowed the spirituality of the work to correlate with my personal experience.
I’ll be posting some of his work and other interviews of this awesome, Seattle artist.
It’s no surprise that I came home to appreciate my own Dia de Muertos decorations, in my studio.