As a guide map for how one could approach contemplating my art, I often like to tell a story from my childhood to create an analogy. When I was a young boy of five or six years old, my family was living in a trailer park in the deep South. A chain link fence surrounded the trailer park. And this was the whole of my childhood play area. Behind the last trailer of the front row, there was a narrow dirt trail that ran alongside the fence. One day while playing on that trail, I discovered a faint and peculiar grey handprint on the metal back of the trailer. The handprint depicted elongated fingers and small palms that melted away at the wrist. The nails were abnormally long, grotesque and eerie.

I immediately made a connection in my mind as to where this handprint had come from. At my grandmother’s house, there was a children’s bible that I would look at when we visited her. On page one hundred and one there was an illustration of Lucifer being cast from heaven. He was a brown creature with a partially human form. He had a long thin tail. His legs mutated into hooves instead of feet. He had webbed wings of a bat that appeared to be semi-transparent membranes. Much of his body was covered in fur and his ears came to a tipped point. Still, he was somehow handsome in the face. He had dark arched eyebrows and well defined cheekbones and lips. Then, there were his hands. He had long unkempt nails in the image. His nails matched exactly to those of the handprint behind the trailer.

In my child’s mind, this strange impression on the back of the trailer was the handprint of the devil, and he was lurking around in our trailer park. I saw what I wanted to see in the faded and somewhat abstracted handprint. In this way, it was like I was looking at a sky full of clouds. We can all share the feeling of staring up into a mass of puffy shapes, where in time they start to look like something familiar, and eventually fizzle into nothing again.

The analogy of staring at clouds is an excellent place to begin when taking in my art. The paintings I make do not appear abstract, and in reality they cannot be. I use representational imagery within each work to a varying degree. The twist is the fact that I use representational imagery in a free associative and purely intuitive manner. I often mix and layer images together in a way that is reminiscent of an abstract painter layering color. And I always find it fascinating to see what will happen in the amalgamation.

I choose my imagery based on a number of considerations including the mood I am striving to create, compositional concerns and the texture of the work. Most importantly however, it is an affinity for what I find beautiful, and a sheer curiosity about the frequently eccentric associations these disparate elements attach to one another that drives me.

Over time, I have become increasingly aware that as an artist I make it simultaneously easy and complicated for my audience. My paintings are often complicated in that they present questions with no explanations. Yet they are easy when one discovers that the questions have no right answers. I see myself as the designer of an expanse of clouds. Each member of my audience will find their own images and stories within these clouds; and discover their own handprint.

-- 2010


The Devil’s Hand Print: An Artist’s Guide To His Work

As a guide map for how one could approach looking at art such as mine, I often like to use a story from my childhood to create an analogy.

When I was a young boy of five or six years old, my family was living in a trailer park in the Deep South. A chain link fence surrounded the trailer park, and that fence contained my entire play area really. I remember distinctly that behind the last trailer on the front row there was a narrow dirt trail in between the back of the trailer and the chain link fence. One day while playing in the park I ran down that path and discovered a strange light grey handprint on the metal of the back end of the trailer. It was a hand of elongated fingers and small palms that melted away at the wrist. The nails were unusually long and eerie.

I immediately made a connection in my mind as to where this handprint had come from. At my grandmother’s house there was a children’s bible that I would look at when we went there. On page one hundred and one there was an illustration of Lucifer being cast from heaven. He was a brown creature with only a partially human form. He had a long, thin tail. His legs mutated into hooves instead of feet. He had large, webbed wings of a bat that were partially transparent membranes. Much of his body was covered in fur and his ears came to a tipped point in the same way as Captain Spock’s. Still, he was somehow handsome in the face. He had dark, arched eyebrows and well defined cheekbones and lips. Then, there were his hands. He had long, unkempt nails in the image that matched exactly to those of the handprint behind the trailer.

In my child’s mind, this strange image on the back of the trailer was the handprint of the devil, and he was lurking around in our trailer park. I saw what I wanted to see in the deteriorated and somewhat abstracted hand print. In this way, it was like looking at a sky full of clouds. We can all share the feeling of staring up into a mass of puffy shapes where, sooner or later, they start to look like something familiar only to fizzle into nothing again.

The analogy of staring at clouds is a good starting point when trying to figure out how to look at art like mine. The art that I make does not appear abstract, and in reality it cannot be. I use representational imagery within each work to varying degrees. The twist is the fact that I use representational imagery in a free associative and purely intuitive manner, almost in a similar way to how an abstract painter would use color. Mixing images together in this way is quite similar to mixing colors. They will change, and I always find it fascinating to see what will happen. I choose the combinations of imagery based on a number of factors including the mood I am working to create, compositional considerations and the texture of the work. But most importantly, it is an affinity for what I find beautiful, and a sheer curiosity about the frequently eccentric associations the disparate elements attach to one another that drives me.

Over time, I have become increasingly aware that as an artist I make it simultaneously easy and difficult for my audience. The images are difficult in the fact that they often present questions with no explanations. Yet they are easy when one discovers that the questions have no right answers. I see myself as the designer of an expanse of clouds. Each member of my audience will find their own story within these clouds; their own hand print which is their own.






GEOFF MITCHELL: MEMORY IN MONTAGE

by Peter Frank, Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum
and art critic for Angeleno magazine and the L. A. Weekly.

There is a “language” to every means of communication, a system of signs ordered into a vocabulary and by considerations of grammar and syntax. Therefore, no matter how much an artwork has resulted from intuition and spontaneity, its counterposition of elements takes on a coherency according to more than just formal arrangement. The practice of collage and assemblage over the last century has made this apparent to all of us; we expect a certain, almost linguistic orderliness from artists such as Schwitters, Rauschenberg and Cornell, a knack for speaking through composition, for making our eyes follow patterns of stress, for arrangements of large and small, sharp and loose, light and dark. Following these collage principles, and the principles of montage that parallel them in photography and film, Geoff Mitchell paints as if he were building rebuses, you know, this + this – this + this = this. But in Mitchell’s work the whole is different than the sum of its parts.

In Mitchell’s lucidly organized canvases, everything, you could say, adds up. Nothing is subtracted from the equation, although some things – some qualities, some clarity, some small part of some element – may be suppressed or obscured in the sequencing. Mitchell’s montage method concerns itself less with the loss of visual material than with the accretion of meaning – not just the build-up of information, but the generation of new, amplified and modulated sensation. As parsed and measured as an English teacher’s sentences, Mitchell’s stately, often almost heraldic compositions gain their strength and tension not from the drama inherent in their elements, but from the new drama that emerges from their juxtaposition – and, conversely, from the drama that results not from a progressive “reading” of the elements across a visual “sentence,” but from a back and forth between them, a sometimes orbital, sometimes zigzag richochet of the eyes across and around the painting.

As we thus scan Mitchell’s paintings, we immediately notice a recurrence of images at once historical and human, figures at rest or involved in mundane activities whose garb and perhaps stance indicate that they lived a century or more ago. These anachronistic apparitions suggest they ought to inspire nostalgia, but few really do. Rather, they invite in romantic, perhaps novelistic association, as if setting up for a costume drama or a period piece. The uniforms and antiquated clothing that recur throughout Mitchell’s art serve to fix a mood rather than tell a story. Something definitely happens; it happens, however, not in the mise en scene, but around it. Mitchell, you could say, is recounting not a tale, but a poem – musing on conditions, comparing past to present, bringing the diction of Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane forth into our time rather than simply setting another Civil War battle in motion.

Finally, what engages us most profoundly about Mitchell’s art is not what it says, but how it talks. Prosaic though its elements might appear, it speaks in verse. The elliptical relationships Mitchell establishes between his whole, segmented, and excerpted pictures provide narratives too oblique to interpret or translate. Even as they tease us with hints of story or perhaps personal revelation, the image-relationships force us to take responsibility for their meaning. Mitchell makes us not simply the decoders, but the encrypters in his poetic mysteries. The images are up to him; the reading is up to us.

December 2006


INTERVIEW

Q. What is the primary motivation behind your work? How would you describe your creative impulse? In your statement you explain how you want to create new meanings for familiar imagery by placing them in new contexts and combinations; is this still accurate?

A. You are correct in what you have from my statement. Although, Visual is always the foremost concern in my work, and I have found that the more I try to direct paintings towards a clear conceptual resolution, they often lose the magic that I attempt to achieve. What I find people struggle with the most is trying to gather meaning or clear explanations where there is none. That doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts about my own work, it’s just that they are mixed together in a free-associated sort of way for visual purpose – and in the end the meaning is almost beside the point.

Q. Why do you prefer to work on wood panels rather than canvas? How do you create such smooth surfaces?

A. Canvas has a texture that I don’t work well with. I do like a smooth surface and rather than try to paint away the texture or sand it, I found I love the birch panels as a perfectly smooth surface. I always find I like others’ work and my own best when they look less like painterly paintings and more like just objects. The smooth surface is part of that trying to make them more “object”-like rather than painterly…even if they have drips and things normally associated with painterly. The drawback to panels is obviously the weight concern.

Q. Please give a basic description of your creative process, including your method(s) of phototransfer.

A. I use two different types of phototransfer methods. One is using wintergreen oil to push the ink from a reverse Xerox as a print process. The other is an onion skin-like decal material made by an English company called Lazertran. The wintergreen method is hazy and much less precise than the decal. It depends on the effect I want as to which I end up using. Sometimes I combine them – even on top of one another. Both methods allow the painting underneath to show through and I rotate between painting and transfer. I will often get an image of the painting in the computer to test photos before transferring to make sure they will work.

Q. How do you select which photographs and other found imagery are to be included in your paintings?

A. Selecting photographs for painting is purely instinctual and this is where I really have to keep myself from being guided by conceptual concerns. A lot of my photography is done by myself or is extracted from my film and video work. I also take from old family photographs and frequently use the picture files of the local library or dated film stills. I rarely use an image in full unless I staged it myself. It is really just what I find interesting and I don’t often know where the painting will end up when I start based on a photograph.

Q. You’ve participated in film festivals in the past; do you still make films? What influence has it had on your painting?

A.  have made two short films (“yellow sister, blue sister” and “faith”). I absolutely love making films because they include so much of what I like to do. I am a musician and I can spend six months with my keyboard and computer designing a soundtrack. Staging shots and then color correcting them is like painting in so many ways. These projects both expanded into solo multi-media installation exhibitions based on the films and included sculpture/photography/installation and sound system. These happened in 2005 in Chicago and Houston. (This work can be found on my website.)

Film and video did affect my painting, but really only in terms of the imagery I incorporate from them. Also, film-making is so technically intensive and precise that I now bring that work ethic to painting. I am planning to make another film, but this year is dedicated to painting.

Q. How would you describe the progression/development of your work throughout your career? Are you addressing the same issues, or are you seeking simplification of expression, or is your work becoming more layered and complex?

A. I started as a figurative painter and over time I slowly realized that I wasn’t really connecting to the look or aesthetic of my paintings, and that is when I began incorporating photography as well as illustrative imagery that were kind of selectively violated by painterly drips and strokes and surface fragmentation. Film-making felt like it was a natural thing to come into because my paintings were feeling like motionless experimental films. I think I am only recently really starting to understand what it is I need to do to get to this object-painting that moves past the “painting” look that I always am in conflict with. (I really do love to paint although it doesn’t sound like it!)

Q. Which artists do you admire?

A. Matthew Barney, Robert Rauschenberg, David Salle, Vernon Fisher, Eric Fischl, Andy Warhol and the Lowe Gallery’s own…Thrush Holmes.

September 2006

 

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