San Francisco Weekly

San Francisco Weekly Artist Interview

David Mitchell: Artist's First West Coast Solo Show Comes to San Francisco

Posted By David-Elijah Nahmod @DavidElijahN on Mon, Jan 26, 2015 at 10:10 AM

British born photographer David Mitchell, who makes his home in Southeast Asia, offers his first solo West Coast exhibition here in our very own City at the Dryansky Gallery on Union Street. The artist, once a world renowned and in-demand high fashion photographer,  changed course after being diagonosed with epilepsy.

While in the fashion world his work was seen inVogue and Elle, with his camera taking him to London, Florence and Milan; in 1991 he moved to Hong Kong.

Mitchell began experiencing partial seizures in 2004 which led to a diagnosis of Left Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. This condition made commercial work difficult, and led to a journey of self-discovery as a fine artist.

He says, in his official bio, that "the fervor with which he creates and the ardor for particular places, objects and color is directly related to the neuroscience of LTLE."

David Mitchell chats with SF Weekly about his current work, which is very different than what he did during his tenure in the fashion world. 

1. Tell me about yourself – Who you are, where you're from, early life, what drew you to art/photography?

I am an artist; I use a camera but I haven’t followed any typical protocol in becoming an artist; I am pretty sure I was born feet first!....

I am from a seaside town on the southern coast of England. Growing up, I would spend as much time as possible in or by the water.  School was like a prison sentence I got through amazingly without going mad. I was a terrible student. From an early age, I knew I would be over the horizon beyond the sea and escape England as soon as I possibly could. Everything beyond school was bliss though. I rode horses on the South Downs and swam in the massive September swells and the Brighton country side is just beautiful. Not a bad place to start.

When I was a teenager I saw this camera in a shop window. I remember looking at the shutter speed dial and the numbers etched on the barrel of the lens and I had no idea what they meant but loved the idea of the engineering that went into the whole thing and knew that something important was in those numbers and that a true artist invented it. My father bought me that camera after telling him I was flunking school. He knew… But what I didn’t know at the time was that those numbers represented “reciprocity” … besides needing to learn the technical bit about the camera and photography, my success in mastering an art with this tool would depend on my ability to communicate with it.

I worked as a photographer’s assistant. It was an internship. I basically worked for sandwiches and learned all the technical stuff and I went to college to get a qualification in photography - I needed validation -- I have no idea why -- Yes I do…tell the truth…fuck it…I didn’t take my exams at school. That’s right - I sat for them but irreverently, I never wrote a word…never made a calculation. That explains the motivation. Photography would be the “ticket out.”

2. Who and what are your artistic influences? Any role models?

I have no formal education in art. I started off not knowing who or what…

When visiting the UK (I have lived in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years) I went to The Tate Modern (first time in an art museum, I am serious) to see the Rothko Seagram’s commission. The only other work I saw or remember seeing was L’Escargot by Matisse, one of his late cut outs - a collage piece that was very large –I loved it and was overwhelmed by its scale. The Matisse and Rothko works both had a profound impact; the scale and proportion. It was after going to the Tate that I created vertical large scale C-prints in 2013. Rothko’s idea that a viewer should be in the work rather than looking at it, resonates with me. I am still making large work.

The second time I went into an art museum was The Philadelphia Museum of Art. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My agent, Lynn Dunham and I went on a Monday morning and had the museum to ourselves – I recall turning a corner and there was this painting and it was at that moment that I really understood the necessity for and importance of art. It was a Cézanne. I had at least heard this name by then but had no idea what his work looked like. Lynn would send me links to this and that artists’ work and I had no interest – but really…it was not for lack of eagerness to learn, I was apprehensive because I was concerned that becoming a student of art, might interfere with my innate creative momentum. I realize how absurd that is and I have relented somewhat and now look at work but my short term memory is so shot I can’t remember who does what; it’s really that bad.

3. What do you look for when you create an image? What are you trying to convey?

I am not trying to convey or replicate anything in the literal sense. My pictures are an accumulation of visual experiences and the emotions which accompany them. All the things I’ve seen and felt go into my art -- memories surface and merge with recent or rather immediate experiences.  I look for mystery, luminosity, juxtaposition of form and space and the placement of colors and how they react to each other to increase or diminish depth, set a tone or a mood, or recall some structure or place actual or imagined. Compositionally, I look for a balance of complexity with simplicity; playfulness with maturity; and the obvious with mystery. Technically/digitally speaking, I am really only capable of doing what could be done in a traditional darkroom. I started out as an analog/darkroom photographer and now work all digitally and what I know about Photoshop is limited. It is so complex. I choose to keep it simple.

My agent likens my process to Ab-Ex painters whose paintings inform themselves in the process of being painted. That makes sense because my work isn’t about taking a picture, it’s about making pictures though a process of steps – each one informing the next. Each is a complete thought or story in itself. I have compartmentalized the work by year so it’s organized in some chronological way. Each picture is responsive to what is happening in my head at the time it is made, so there may be a picture I make today that looks like one done in 2012 or one that was done on 2010 that has clear reference to one made in 2013.

4. Can you talk about your past work in fashion and how you segued to art?

I wanted to do something artistic and the most artistic photography I had seen was on the pages of Italian Vogue and L’Uomo Vogue, especially back in the late 80s and early 90s. The idea of being an artist hadn’t occurred to me. I loved characters, film characters and all that charisma and I think looking back I might have preferred being a portrait photographer but I loved photo essay magazine spreads where editors gave you freedom to do whatever you wanted but I knew nothing about the fashion industry and had no interest. It was the face or the still frame from a film perhaps I was trying to capture. I loved to photograph people. It might have something to do with (nostalgia) -- Jacques Henri Lartigue that prompted it all.

The segue to fine art was a direct result of the onset—twelve years ago— of LTLE. The not knowing when a seizure would hit, made it impossible to work commercially. You don’t just have a 5 minute aura and return to normal. There is a residual post-ictal phase which lingers and no one can see it. You’re disconnected and the arms can go numb and your whole body is weakened like it’s been electrically charged, speech can be off and finding words to communicate can be difficult. The anxiety and is debilitating and makes it very challenging to live a normal life or work a normal job. But this type of Epilepsy for me comes with heightened creativity and an obsession for a reason -- it helps keep the monster in the box. I feel like the busier my brain is, the less room there is for an electrical storm to take place—I have to keep ahead of it.

5. Do you ever want to do fashion work again?


6. Can you describe how/if your epilepsy influences your current work? 

Presuming my current work is defined by the on-going abstract (AB) series now in its fifth year, I can say that epilepsy continues to be relevant in a number of ways. It inspires me to make art in an obsessive compulsive manner - I just can’t stop it. My experiences inform the compositions and the compositions inform the colors. Within the grip of an aura, the sensory distortions can be remarkable. In general, epilepsy has changed the way I think and process things. It influences everything I see and experience. The effect a seizure will have on me drives me to record something that comes from imagination. There is a lot of work. I create frenetically but it is a wholly pleasurable experience. The process is intense and full of details. I love the sensation and the way my mind throws it all at me. It really is quite something to experience. I love it. I still have seizures and although they pop up every so often and I have to live with that. I have to be medicated and I am on the highest dose now.

The past 12 years have had such a huge impact that it’s impossible not to be influenced by the condition. It’s a big bag of tricks and very difficult to put into words. I am not as good with words as I am with images. To be clear, the work is absolutely not in the literal sense anything I see. I don’t hallucinate and see images before I make them - Nothing of the sort. Auras can create (its heaven or hell) this utterly euphoric feeling of familiarity that comes on and lasts from a couple minutes to an hour or longer. Everything you see you’ve seen before, everything you’ve known…you know more acutely. You recognize everything. It’s as if everything is coming home all at once: places that you have never been before suddenly become so familiar. Spatial awareness changes, not like you normally see things or feel a space. I know it sounds abstruse but it’s just how it is and it’s - a very beautiful thing to experience. Lewis Carol and van Gogh both had LTLE and if you think of van Gogh’s painting of his Bedroom at Arles—all tilted and his altered fanciful colors and his prolificacy or Lewis Carol’s Alice shrinking and enlarging and going down the rabbit whole, it makes total sense. The absinthe or the LSD stories may be true but when I look at this work or read it, it suggests LTLE for sure. There’s something in all that; I know it.

7. What has your condition taught you about yourself?

It’s taught me that I can take some serious shit. This truly tests one’s strength…I thought I was weak in so many areas of my life and then this thing came and tells you how much you can take.  It’s taken me very very close to the edge and lets me have a look into the abyss every now and then. It’s like the thing that’s supporting me is under constant threat of structural failure. It’s taught me to persevere and to be acutely aware of time. We are all in a race against time and I know that’s a cliché but once you start running the fear goes and everything is beautiful. I just keep ahead of it and keep looking forward.

 8. Would you ever want to write a book about your experiences and journey?

I think it would be exhausting to go back and rerun the whole thing. I have to stick with the visual.

But there are curators like Lyle Rexer who are so much more qualified to write about art than I am. Having been interviewed at length by Rexer, I am fascinated by what he could see way beyond what I can in my own work. I would love to work with him on a book.

9.Anything you'd like to add?

Yes. If you feel like you have anything artistic to express, get on it, before you piss your whole life away.



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