Katherine Mitchell: At the edge of being and doing (2007)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 11 November 2011
This essay was previously published in a catalogue for the exhibition Katherine Mitchell: A retrospective 1974-2006, Atlanta City Gallery East, 2007.

Titles, as bits of language, are a particularly unreliable source for considering what a work of art is “about,” but there are several sequences of words that Katherine Mitchell has used over the years to title her abstract works (and the word “abstract” is another unreliable fragment of language to which I will return). These terms might be divided into two categories, words referring to architecture in a literal or structural sense (often archaic), or words referring to structure in the works themselves. The architectural and archaic terms (tower, Etruscan, vault, passage, mandala, scroll, labyrinth) often refer to imagery suggested by the works, and the structural terms (lineolate, earthline, umleitung (redirecting or detour), fonction doublée, sfumato) often refer to the process of their making. Another word used by the artist, meditation, does not at first glance seem to refer to structure; nevertheless, it does relate to the process of the works’ construction.

These titles suggest the two major concerns of Katherine Mitchell’s work: making and systems. That is to say, she is concerned with the basic creative act, the basic human act even, in both its parts: First, the reach outward from the interior of consciousness (the act of marking or making); Second, the principle through which the mark or the form makes sense (the system or structure of the mark or the form). The art of the last half of the 20th century has often seen these actions as separate: Neoexpressionism, for instance, proposed painting as primal expression. Some of the painters of that movement referred to themselves as “paintspitters,” referring to what is presumed to be the method of the first mark-makers, the cave-dwellers who placed their hands against a wall and sprayed pigment, making a silhouette of the hand. On the other hand, some Minimalists seemed, at least, to propose that the system or concept of the work is all that mattered, as in statements by Sol LeWitt. Both positions are exaggerations that move in opposite directions from the knife-sharp edge of a phenomenological truth that Mitchell demonstrates in her work: there is no expression prior to system, and system exists only in expression. Meditation, and the meditative quality that has often been observed in Mitchell’s work, reaches for that same knife-edge: in doing, systematically, her work expresses the most basic truth of life, the imperceptible but palpable membrane between the perceiving self and the perceived world. The beauty and the profundity of Katherine Mitchell’s work taps into the energy and clarity along that membrane, just as practices of meditation seek to do. Just as the creation and contemplation of a mandala does, another form referred to in Mitchell’s titles. The color, line, and repetition that are the elements of her work are both the medium and the expression of this meditative, phenomenological state in which the works exist.

The description of her work as “abstract”, or even “non-objective” misses this central fact of her work. The paintings and drawings are not abstracted from something (certainly not from a representational image, and also not from the architectural forms to which they sometimes refer). They are not non-objective, or minimal, or reductive either: they are themselves real (and complex) things, produced by real (and considerable) work. They are, simultaneously, marks on a surface, evidence of a structural principle, and traces of an action embedded in that principle.

Katherine Mitchell’s work up to the monumental MARTA project (for the Sandy Springs Station in Atlanta’s commuter-rail system) demonstrates a meticulous process of drawing or painting within a predetermined system or grid. These grids frequently took on the form of architectural forms, and Mitchell has said that the MARTA project, with its accumulation of two-inch-square ceramic tiles, was the capstone of her architecturally oriented work.

There is evidence of a new direction in her work since the MARTA commission, perhaps the result of the long, collaborative, and arms-length process of completing a public art project. She says that she “was ready to move away from the old work. I wanted to do works that were soft, ephemeral, natural. Surfaces which revealed the hand and which were soft and pliant.” She had already been moving in this direction in 1998, with works inspired by water that rely on, in the artist’s words, “soft, undulant materials which reveal the working of the hand, while reflecting the luminous, ephemeral quality of life”. This return to the hand is the return to the phenomenological turn in her work, to the immediacy of making. And in her shift away from the actual hardness of the tiles and the hard edge of the architectural drawings and paintings, she has created some of the most immediate, sensual, and provocative works of her career.

In works from 2000 and 2001, the grid is still prominent, but with the “Meditation on Sacred Stairs” series of drawings, diagonal lines, almost like hash marks, contradict the grid, as well as a background surface modulation that is soft and undetermined, almost like rubbings. Irregular surfaces had been an element of her work before, such as in the surface quality of Conté and pastel on the paper of Passage III (1990), or the lovely Nightwood drawing (1997), which seems to embody her earlier statement, in the texts associated with her 1979 series of photographs, that “line can become texture.” But with the “Sacred Stairs” and the subsequent “Krems Suite” and “Labyrinth” paintings, the soft ground of the works has moved forward as a compositional element, as prominent in the paintings as the color and line. A small ink drawing of 2005 shows a further break: the crossing lines of the drawing are more a warp than a grid, a loose woven pattern that can also be seen in Ink Drawing with Tea (2005), which juxtaposes the irregular lines, a labyrinthine grid, coolly regular square forms, and a modulated background staining that darkens in bands as the eye moves down the surface. The artist refers to many of the works of the past two years explicitly as “Woven”. If the MARTA project shifted more toward system, these works insistently foreground process. They reveal the artist’s hand more prominently than any of Katherine Mitchell’s earlier works, and they also reveal the edge along which she is moving: not only the phenomenological edge of being and doing, but also the edge of individual, personal risk and commitment out of which comes the best art. Mitchell is showing us not only the process but also the life of the mark on the surface, the artistic engagement between mind and form, and the personal gesture of endowing meaning upon the living surface of the tangible world.