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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.