Mitch Mitchell. The Silence.
Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.
— Cormac McCarthy The Road
As one views the sublime, deeply haunting printed works in Mitch Mitchell’s Cities of the Prairies and The Longing Focal, there is a profound sense of silence. Strange when considering visual work, that sound or a lack thereof should come into play, and while Mitchell’s work is soundless, it is not mute. As one reads page after wordless page in these seductive books, one image melts into the next and a sense of foreboding and unrest takes hold. Small, subtle characters emerge above and beneath quiet, tense surfaces and a story of desolation, danger, and seduction unfolds. The danger is intangible, a prickly awakening of one’s “spidey senses” as what one reads as landscape morphs into a human skin, a frozen lake, a deserted quarry, and back to a snow-covered field. It’s difficult to tell if the surfaces in the image are organic or manmade, if they are of the present or future. Their eerie skin is flesh-like, but a frozen, lost, post-apocalyptic kind of flesh. There are piercings in this dermis, and dark forms lie under its surface. The few bright, electric spots of light burn coldly on barren flesh. What rests beneath the skin? What happened here? Where are we? What are we left with? Is it silence?
Mitchell tells me he was reading McCarthy’s The Road, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Dante’s Inferno while working towards these portfolios. His wordless prints whisper to me in Middle English, Italian and in an apocalyptic tongue. He tells me he was deeply invested in accuracy albeit emotive, in how things looked, felt, smelled in his examination of place. He found himself in a makeshift worker’s uniform, breaching the sanctum of a worksite, camping gear concealed under his clothes, ready for a week of undercover espionage. Armed with his books, with only his memory to serve as record, he sought to experience the Place he would print. He was on a pilgrimage, a search for truth, on his own “road.”
Mitchell’s investigation began long before his time in the Canadian Prairies, long before he spent time thinking about the Tar Sands. He brings body memories to this work, decades of printing experience, ink under the fingernails, marking his skin. His work makes oblique reference to a specific place, its destruction, the construction of infrastructure therein, and the dirty, greasy, silence surrounding it. His images foretell a danger in that manufactured landscape, its beguiling surface concealing the perils of the beneath. Though some of the works’ titles make reference to place, “the Polar View,” the work is deeply sensual and human. His surfaces are slick, oily, dark, soft and touchable. The combination of Photogravure and lithographic process Mitchell uses is seductive and deceptive and leaves viewers wondering what exactly they’re looking at- photograph? digital print? manipulated image? The truth, if one can use that word, is that the print is all of the above. And it is in Mitchell’s deft use of the medium that allows the ambiguity of form and image to seduce his viewer.
We search for the real in what we see. We want truth in documentary media, photographs and documents of the world around us. Canadian documentary photographer Edward Burtynsky darkly and beautifully captures the ravages of industry at specific places on the planet. Butynsky’s straight photography offers viewers site-specific views of the environmental impact manufacturers have had on China, India, Canada, and the United States. Mitchell makes a point of removing all points of reference within his prints- scale, horizon, physical markers that might help his viewer link the image to a specific time or place, a particular scene. In so doing, his scenes become universal and strangely personal, deeply intimate. Mitchell’s truth is manipulated. He digitally alters the photographs he takes of scenes he constructs in his studio using the detritus of his surrounding environment; latex, wire and bits of candy and rubber. His pilgrimage for truth led him to duplicity, to creating an ethereal landscape and prickly skin.
These prints reveal a mature understanding of our precarious standing on this planet. While unwilling to take an overtly political or environmental stand, his work warns of a place that may be all that is left after we take from it what we see as “ours” – tellingly eerie, foreboding, and dangerous places. These prints speak viscerally, of the body, of our humanity and of the thin skin we share with our surroundings. Despite their dark, quiet sensibility, these prints are revealingly erudite.
Sarah Fillmore is Chief Curator of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and curator of the Sobey Art Award. Exhibitions curated by Fillmore include CLICK, Forces of Nature, The Last Frontier and since 2006, the annual Sobey Art Award. She has just completed a major retrospective and accompanying publication of Canadian abstract painter Jacques Hurtubise. Forthcoming exhibitions include a solo project with Lisa Lipton, a retrospective of Canadian realist painter Mary Pratt, the group exhibition Skin. Fillmore is a writer for Oh! Canada! publication accompanying the MASS MOCA exhibition of the same name, curated by Denise Markonish.
Monograph by Sarah Filmore