Artistic growth is a process as individual as the work it yields. Some artists convey core ideas in a variety of mediums. Kara Walker comes to mind. Others break dramatically from their pasts, as did Philip Guston when he abandoned Abstract Expressionism for rowdy cartoonish figuration.
Some plow the same field, moving forward by accretion. Katherine Mitchell‘s practice, rooted in minimalist repetition of forms and patterns, particularly the grid, would seem to exemplify this steady pace. Comparing one series of paintings to the next, one would characterize the changes as variation on a theme.
Incremental shifts can add up to big changes, of course; Mitchell’s work has traveled quite a distance in the course of four decades. But never so far or so fast as in the work of the past few years. She began introducing text — her writings based on readings — and with it a fluid, calligraphic line, first woven through the grid and then superimposed on it in concentric circles.
These ideas have flowered in “Places of Memory and Dreams,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through March 31. The mixed-media paintings on canvas and paper in this solo show, the culmination of a 2010/11 Working Artist Project award, are more than merely the next stage. They represent visual complexity and emotional depth of a different order.
Mitchell’s inspiration is Gaston Bachelard’s book “The Poetics of Space.” The house, he writes, is the seat of creativity, “is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.” The French philosopher uses this idea both metaphorically — the soul as abode — and physically. He ascribes importance to one’s birth home and, at the other end of the spectrum, the journey, “home elsewhere.”
Bachelard propelled Mitchell to examine her own memories and dreams. In this body of work, she looks back on her artistic life and recalls formative people, experiences and readings through the symbolism of the house.
Her work frequently starts as response to her environment, its architecture and landscape, which she distills into abstracted imagery. These works are abstractions as well, but they contain plans of specific houses. Paradoxically, the plans look “official” but are constructed mainly from memory and imagination.
They include her childhood home in Mississippi; the house of Mrs. Gray Nichols, a magical childhood home-away-from-home; her first “adult” house, which she shared with her first husband, the late painter Ed Ross; the Berlin studio in which she started this series; and the home of author Anaïs Nin, whose writing helped shaped her ideas of what it is to be an artist.
Landscape, suggested in her palette of mostly soft greens, grays and blues, figures in these memories as well. The drawing “Mississippi/Algiers,” for instance, evokes riding a bus home, enjoying the cedars and reading Camus (and thinking about it as a love story!).
The layered compositions start with a grid. Then come the concentric circles of text in a loose, loopy handwriting, as in Mitchell’s previous works. An architectural plan of one of the houses previously mentioned occupies the center, from which lines radiate to the edges like a sunburst. She places squares of translucent paper, chine collé, over squares of the grid.
The orthogonals with their ruled lines contrast with the spiraling words and the irregularly spaced diagonal lines to create a rich texture and an almost “op” effect. Though the vibrato is muted by the subtle palette, destabilization introduces a new energy into Mitchell’s work.
Just as important, it is more personal. Her art has always sprung from a well of emotion. Precision and order belie those romantic and spiritual underpinnings, or camouflage them. This series is clearly autobiographical, even revelatory.
The single sculpture in the show, titled “For Willie,” is evidence that her childhood visits to the Nichols house occupy a special place in her heart, probably for more than the lessons in “austerity, simplicity and even asceticism” that she describes.
The sculpture replicates a bird trap she built with Willie, one of the siblings who lived in the house, on a snowy day. It’s a monumental version of the little ones she found herself making just for fun every so often over the years. Constructed of twigs and twine covered in ghostly white liming wax and gesso, it’s composed of Josef Albers-like concentric squares sectioned off into grids.
Is this the mother grid, Mitchell’s version of “Citizen Kane’s” Rosebud? Probably not. Sol LeWitt, Ed Ross and the zeitgeist of her student years are the more likely influences. But it is safe to say that, by looking back, Mitchell has moved forward. A lovely show.