Interview by Anne Marie Taylor
I met Graeme Mitchell at the opening of his first exhibition at Wilding Cran, in 2014. After speaking about his work, LA, and life in general, it was obvious he had a critical mind and articulate manner, in some part from schooling in literature at Oregon State University and living in New York for several years. Well known as an editorial photographer of portraits for The New Yorker, The New York Times and WSJ Magazine, Mitchell has only recently--considering the span of his career--included fine arts in his practice. In anticipation of his next solo exhibition at Wilding Cran (opening Saturday, April 8 in Los Angeles), I met with him at his studio on Slauson and Normandie, to catch up and see where this new body of work has taken him.
The studio, fairly large, is set up with new paintings, along with older paintings I’d seen before, small "installational" sculptures of chicken wire and photographs, tables of paint, and stacks and stacks of printed images. We sit in tall chairs by the recorder and delve right into the bigger questions.
Anne Marie Taylor: Would you describe your move from editorial and commercial photography toward fine art as a switch? Transition? Deviation? How do you find that they inform each other? Or are you working with a different set of concerns for each?
Graeme Mitchell: I think about it as more of an evolution, because to me an evolution is something that happens both naturally and out of necessity, and that's how I felt when I added painting to my photo practice. I think it’s important to explain my history in photography. It's all I've ever done, the only job I've ever had, and it was largely based on commercialism. Once I began to work within an art practice, I started to use drawing and video alongside photography. Still, I kept finding that photography was putting me in these cul de sacs. I thought maybe it was because I’d done it since I was so young and I had all this information, all these things I had learned--I couldn't take a photograph without allusions and automatisms. Or maybe the difficulty was that it was always based upon a commercial career. But then I started to play with paint and I started to look at photography through painting, and something clicked. It was a way of stripping away everything I knew about making pictures, and starting with something very, very basic.
This conversation about using painting now is difficult for me though, because generally I feel like I’m offered these narrow definitions of things; like you were this, now you're that. And it makes it feel like there's a sense of leaving something... I don't really feel that. You said this really interesting thing about how nobody talks about what happens when you get to a place, or when you realize you never actually do get to that place. It makes sense, but sometimes it can be silly. And it’s come up a lot lately, but it often is more about how to define or understand something than what is actually happening.
I’ve come to understand one of the primary concerns of my work is pictures, and I wanted to try something, try to go deeper with this new medium, go further along this path that I've been walking. And there’s nothing strange in that to me.
AMT: I feel that you're also an editor in almost every aspect; you even edit your speech. You make so many versions of these paintings, apart from studies, that there's room for mistakes and for failure. And that's basically how you learn, right?
GM: It's also often the most interesting part of the work. That's one of the reasons I really grasped onto painting--there were so many more opportunities for failure within it. When you're trying to understand pictures, almost on a philosophical level, like what they mean to you, every opportunity for failure is an opportunity for discovery.
This is also what makes painting so frustrating, because there are no road marks at any point in this process. With each mark you have no indicators of why something works or doesn't work, except your gut. Seeing what is good, or what is there, is the most difficult part. With painting, you're contending with that aspect of virtuosity--either trying to attain it, or to try to create friction against the idea of it. Virtuosity isn’t really something you think about in photography.
But yes, that’s how I learn, through practice, trying and seeing. The best advice I got when I first really started to get knocked around by painting was from a good friend, who said painting is pretty much about getting to work on it.
AMT: Do you place yourself in the work, or is it more like you're a vessel of some kind, or a translator for the image which is a separate thing from you? Your hand is in it, obviously, because you're making it, but are you personally involved in it, other than on a conceptual level?
GM: There are two sides to that for me. I often look more to literature, because when I hear writers talk about the process, it makes a lot of sense to me. My bodies of work begin with a premise of cataloging what’s around me, a kind of journaling. In that sense, it’s personal. It's things around me that I start recording, and making piles and making pictures, and then only after I’m maybe halfway into a body of work am I able to step back and it begins to outline its edges. It’s a very natural process. I like for it to be wide open, something that can take on a life of its own.
In the actual making of the painting, I don't want any sense of me in it. Even my hand, as you put it, is something I’m trying to distance myself from. I like it to be ambiguous. My presence isn’t useful in what I want the picture to achieve either in my making it or in my audience’s viewing it. This goal of being apart from the work is fundamentally contradictory to a hand-painted picture, but that dualism is maybe the meaningful part to me. With it, a sense of longing or searching can be manifested in the picture--it is art as a means to witnessing faith. There’s just no ego in it.
Cage and Richter were extremely influential in that regard. I didn't come from art, so I assumed for a long time that art had to have a level of expressionism in it, but they taught me that expression could be an operation of chance. That chance is often how my hand happens to move when I stop thinking about it.
AMT: It's also that sort of Cageian idea of putting a frame around something, like the ordinary or slightly askew situation. Because of its semi regal history, as soon as you make a painting of something, it becomes important. Doing that with these images you find on the Internet is a strange juxtaposition. It adds something to it, I think.
GM: Someone could also see that as a gimmick, but I say that maybe because I don't see paintings as regal. Or maybe I do, but not in the sense that it’s innate in their history. Any art can be regal, and I think the tremendous thing about art is it can be so many things at once. Some of these works have this bizarre sort of amateurism to them, but at the same time are not functioning at all as an amateur easel painting might. I think art that I enjoy most when I'm seeing it--you just can't place it fast. It creates this complication of being two things at once, or three things at once. And it won’t tell you what it is, but it’s quiet and allows you to discover for yourself.
AMT: The images you start with have many different sources: a still from a video that you got from the computer, that you printed, that you painted, for example. There are degrees of separation from the original source of the image. How do you think that functions in relation to the themes you’re working with? Do you think that process diminishes the essence of a thing?
GM: I’ve always seen a picture as being entirely separate from the subject within it. I come at this from having focused on portraiture for 15 years. The idea that a picture I make of someone could represent them in any way beyond light hitting them always made me laugh. Any picture I make that is worthwhile is meant as something new.
The pictures I seek to make will have their own essence, separate from whatever my starting point was. And furthermore, that process you’re commenting on, and making it part of the work, is at times part of that new thing and its essence. It's like an aspect of Epistemology or self-awareness of what I'm structuring, the history of it, and remarkably, in the end, of my continued faith in it. Like those paintings of Molly, someone might argue there’s a weakness to their difference, or my lack of commitment to a "style," but I think seeing that mining of something is one of the most interesting parts about them, and it shows how style is a decision, not an innate "inspiration."
My whole project in art, even in my early photography days, has been a searching, and a desire to find a model of seeing and ordering. This becomes interesting with this particular body of work, because in part it's about how we create meaning and make our own roles in our own and collective stories, or what we now call networks of information.
AMT: How do you think the current cultural and political climate might affect the way that people might see this new body of work? More specifically, regarding how information travels and gets distorted, how truth is formed...
GM: That wasn't really my intention, so I would never want to suggest that that was my only interest in making the work. It’d be silly to say they didn’t inform me, as what’s happening has been so extraordinary, but it’s part in the finished work is only peripheral to my broader concerns of how we humans survive. But if politics start a conversation with people, I think it's cool. I think it's cool if people stop and engage with the work in any way. I read recently (I forget who the quote was by), “a picture should not be interesting.” I thought that was such a great quote, because it's true. Interesting is the worst thing to hear about a picture.
Work that relies on contemporary politics or issues becomes a problem when someone doesn't understand those politics in 100 years. The greatest goal in any art is staying power. Can it stick? Can it last? The news will come and go. The true power of the politics of art is its a-politics.
AMT: Or it could be seen as a tool for reference, and in that case it has more of an archeological function.
GM: Certainly, it can do that. History painting. Certainly photography. But with the great dearth of media and pictures now, I think it’s unnecessary to consider this a primary function of art pictures. This notion relies on a future generation that understands our way of understanding and our language, which I don’t take for granted. With Goya’s The Third of May 1808, do we walk nearer because of how he painted that picture, or because we’re interested in finding out who is being shot? For me the picture is what lasts.
I’ve often thought the arguments against the object of art as being limiting. I think the object of art is one of the most powerful tools of art, because objects are going to be something that someone may possibly understand 500 years from now. They could pick up a painting and see marks on a cloth, and be like: somebody did this. Somebody made this with their hands. I think that that creates a possibility of empathy across generations... I don’t say this nostalgically, but outside of concept and everything else, art is passing on a tool box to people. This is a way of living. This is a way of seeing things, doing things, and I think that's really beautiful.
AMT: Do you think there is still room or a place for romanticism in contemporary art?
GM: I think these days to be a Romantic is essentially to be earnest and to say, I don't want to rely on irony. In that sense, I think there's always room for the Romantic. For me to sit down and say I'm going to paint the picture, I'm going to paint it really simply, and I'm going to do it extremely honestly... that's romantic as hell.
So I consider myself Romantic in my process, in the sense that I believe in the picture and I really believe in art. It was the thing that gave me structure in my life, and it's the one thing in my life that's never let me down. People let me down, days will let me down, money's let me down. All these things have let me down, but art is an armature.
So Romance, I think there's room for it. And certainly not small R romantic in the sense of sentimentality. Not a longing or nostalgia, that's terrible. There’s no room for that at all in my art.
AMT: It seems like, generally, more painters dabble in photography than the other way around.
GM: There's this thing with painting, where people think they had to have studied it or done it since they were ten. There’s this intimidation that comes with drawing and draftsmanship, and knowing some people are so naturally talented in these things. But, if you don't get caught up in that, and you just approach it with this very simple set of tools, simply... approach it like it’s not difficult and see what happens. I mean, painting is hard. But I never thought photography was easy either. I say do what you want: trace, project, grid, draw, don’t draw, take pictures, whatever. There aren’t any rules. I love materials and craft, but I don’t think there’s anything to prove there anymore.
AMT: Art school teachers always emphasize mastering the fundamentals first. Like, “look at Da Vinci, learn the figure first”. Then you’re drawing, when you know that you want to be making abstract paintings because that's what suits your vision.
GM: If you know up front that drawing, in that sense of having a voice with line and draftsmanship, isn't something you're interested in... I played with line and gesture for a few years, but I found the sense of history of drawing and the sense of showing a confidence in my hand wasn’t where I wanted to go. Because it wasn’t where I was coming from, and it puts too much of a fingerprint on the work. And I realized plenty of people did it better already.
Still, I wouldn't underestimate how much I've studied pictures. You know, maybe I’m self-taught and I didn't study drawing, but that's interesting, to become a painter from having studied pictures for the last twenty years as opposed to having studied line. Because we don't look at drawings anymore, we look at photos and videos. And that's all I've ever known.
AMT: That's a great point.
GM: So, maybe art teachers should be teaching photography.
Portrait of Graeme Mitchell by David Cortes