Mitchell is one of Seattle's most compelling artists, one who also hasn't shown much work in recent years. He has a show scheduled at the Henry Art Gallery later this year, which may signal his re-emergence, but for now we must be happy with his loosely organized gathering (survey would be too precise a term) of 10 years of work. His major concerns, and a hint of possible future directions, are clearly on view here.
Mitchell's first instinct is toward the decorative. He draws on traditions as widespread as Delft ceramics and Japanese sumi drawing. In an interview with The Stranger years ago, he said he thought art should provide relief, in both the sculptural and psychological sense--a beautifully direct statement that is at odds with the goals of about every major artist since Matisse.
His sculptures here are certainly full of relief. Mitchell's little ceramic or plastic sculptures (I want to call them tchotchkes, in the very least insulting sense of the term) bristle with protuberances, particularly in a series of Chinese Fu dogs. These traditional ornamental figures, modeled loosely on a pug, take that dog's folded features and transform them into flame-like points surrounding a round mouth. In his Fu dogs, Mitchell compounds the ornamental confusion by his use of materials. Working in ceramics, he uses dark glazes which obscure his details, and similar pieces in cast plastic use dark colors or translucence to similarly blur the image from a distance. These objects must be approached to be understood; the details don't coalesce into a readable shape until you're a foot or so away from them. Sitting atop similarly ornamented stands, his dogs further disappear--round lumps on flat-topped lumps.
Examples of Mitchell's earlier ceramic work show the big shift he's made recently. Working in the Delft ceramics style, blue glaze on white, Mitchell made ornamental objects that were very readable from a distance, which delivered joy through their pleasing crudeness. Now, his objects invite you close in, rewarding close attention and making casual observation impossible.
A varied array of works on paper chart a very different course. For a Witch (1996), a large ink on rice paper drawing, shows Mitchell's interest in decorative surfaces, while more recent prints and drawings show a move toward more direct communication. A very funny six-piece series of watercolors dominates the main room. Titled Summer Readings, the watercolors depict various subjects, full-length portrait style: a pair of rowers from a crew team, a secretary, a shirtless man with the features and fur of a bear. Drawn around each centered portrait are the books these characters are apparently reading, their titles working alternately with and against the images their poses are meant to convey. The crewbies have, among others, Eros & Humiliation, Free Willy, H.I.V., Golden Oars, and something called Eggs and Grapes. The bear has a naughtier sounding list: Plain Brown Wrapper, Seasick Sailor, How the Bitter Mind Works, and Mossy. The secretary is reading both Iris Is High and The Cowgirl in Me; a burly worker in a U.F.W. T-shirt has Big Max! and Boys of Brazil; a pair of girlfriends are accompanied by A Life in Pink and Ponies; a scruffy twentysomething bookseller offers Beck Black Bjork and Foucault's Shave. Here, Mitchell shows a Roz Chast-like talent for complex yet light humor.
But it's the overdecorated dogs, along with a few bunnies, that draw one back for more; and it's the dogs that point to the link between Mitchell the ornamental and McMakin the pure. McMakin's furniture reduces form to the point where it's almost pure idea: his chairs look exactly like what you expect a chair to look like, but are so reduced and flattened in form as to almost serve poorly as chairs. Mitchell's art is to so overwhelm his surfaces that the form disappears under the weight of its ornament. In both cases, ideas taken to their extremes tend toward the dissolution of form. One takes a simplifying route, the other a complicating one. Both are simply thrilling to look at.