The Dog Must Howl: On the Art of David Mitchell

What is it we see when we open our eyes on the world? What can art show us of that? With a profound immediacy, the work of David Mitchell has revived these questions posed by the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty once wrote of painting, “…it offers to vision its inward tapestries, the imaginary texture of the real.” The philosopher had little interest in photography, given its traditionally static, not to say iconic relationship to material reality. Merleau-Ponty’s great theme was the imaginative construction of reality through the artist’s perception, a profound hunger to make what is outside inside – and vice versa. This hunger impels the work of David Mitchell, a photographer unique among his contemporaries.

Usually the attempt by photographers to pursue a path outward from the inside leads either to surrealism or to a kind of coat-tail pulling formalism, where visual analogy is meant to stand in for psychic and spiritual connection. This is in contrast to other more political forms of abstraction in photography, from early Suprematism and the New Vision of the Bauhaus, whose point was to promote an idea of order beyond the visible, to contemporary content-free imagery that seeks to foreclose any interpretation at all: what you see is what you get.

David Mitchell uses the techniques of photography, combined with digital tools, to make an image of his inner experience, to build toward specificity rather than to court ambiguity. That inner experience is one of unsurpassed intensity and visual richness, a space where his physical body and its events intersect the world and its impressions. An earlier time, Merleau-Ponty’s for instance, would have called the response visionary, before that word was trivialized. In the starkest terms, it involves Mitchell’s attempt to find a visual “language” for depicting supremely altered states of perception and consciousness induced by left temporal lobe epilepsy, which first appeared a decade ago. He does not make metaphors, as conventional photographers unavoidably do. He strives for an impossible transparency. 

Clinical literature is accumulating about LTLE, presenting stories of individuals with the condition experiencing episodes of unquenchable creativity, in fields that often have no prior relevance to their symptomless lives. That is not quite true in Mitchell’s case. He had been a successful fashion and editorial photographer, so the camera as a device and his professional milieu implanted a repertoire of responses (choices about framing, point of view, depth of field, color, and graphic form, as well mise-en-scène and narrative arrangement). Thus, along with the “what” of his art there was already a nascent sense of “how.” Yet nothing prepared him for the “what,” the overwhelming tide of sensations and memories that LTLE triggers. As he describes it, the experience is like opening a box he never knew existed, and finding inside it everything, but transformed beyond recognition: sight, sound, smell, color, space, memory, corporeality itself. He stands outside himself, aware of his body immersed in the tide of intense colors, auras, sounds, forms. Suddenly, in a rush, the fullness of being is opened and “the inward tapestry of vision” revealed. It is bliss, but crushing.

With these episodes came the sudden drive to give form to an expression, to do what the dreamer inside the grip of a dream cannot do, which is to seize and transmit some aspect of it. “The dog howls at the moon,” says Mitchell. “The dog has no choice. I have no choice but to try to snatch what I can.” Which is not to say that the process of translation, or call it assimilation, is easy or simple. Merleau-Ponty’s writing on Cezanne has unveiled the shifting intricacy of an artist’s attempts to capture the visible. Yet with Mitchell’s work there is a sense that the search for appropriate means was and is inevitable because the pull of the subject is so strong. The search continues, impelled by vision, what he calls his lucid dreaming.

The first and most important step for Mitchell was to jettison black and white photography in favor of color. His antiquarian comfort, the comfort of formalism and control, could not withstand the tide of sensation. It would have been like singing in silence. Colors can blend and match or clamor discordantly, only to form new accords. Color binds us to the surrounding world, an actual ligament. Color reminds us that the experience of our being is more than an image or an idea; it is a totality, lived through our bodies, indivisible. Working with color, the artist works with the world, with the light that emanates from it. Black and white could reenter his thinking – as it has recently in engrossing large-scale works – only after color had changed his vision by revealing light’s dual character, transformative and transparent. At the same time, Mitchell needed a foundation for the work, a visual starting point, like the initial mark on a canvas, and he found it in fabric he would collect then assemble into graphic constructions. In early works, he preserved visual references to this collage foundation, whose materials were discarded after photographing. The impulse may have been to ground the images by providing a sign to the viewer that the photographs were exactly that and that they were about something, that is, something distinctly out there.

Since 2010 and especially in the most recent images, that anchor has been cut loose. The foundational constructions are no longer apparent as such, with fewer and fewer anecdotal references (mesh, torn fabric edges, tape). Memory and loss, the classic themes of photography, no longer haunt the pictures. They have become more abstract, richer in information and visual texture and, I believe, truer to their intentions. Critical attempts to affiliate the work with constructivism, concrete art and minimalism, all ideologically based movements long since extinct, make little sense. Mitchell might be practicing a species of process art, except that he appears to have no interest in process for its own sake or in chance, except insofar as these might lead him closer to his elusive goal. The outcome cannot be known in advance, but that doesn’t mean unpredictability is the point. Mitchell uses both in-camera strategies, including double exposures, extreme close ups, gels and filters, and, post facto, digital programs. He clearly does not care about photographic purity or issues of ontology and virtuality. He makes images to approach ever more faithfully the texture of his experiences. “I have to surrender to the process so I can work quickly,” he says. “Otherwise I feel I am dragging a dead weight.” His techniques are not rocket science, but they illustrate a fundamental axiom of creativity, that everything is explored on a need-to-know basis. Like Cezanne, who constantly lamented his lack of ability as a painter, if Mitchell needs it, he figures out how to do it, and figuring it out leads him to new and better ways of rendering. Like Cezanne, who constantly lamented his lack of ability as a painter, if Mitchell needs it, he figures out how to do it, and figuring it out leads him to new and better ways of rendering which can only approach the goal and, thus, prompt yet another beginning, another series. As the work becomes less nostalgic, it becomes more poignant.

It recalls the character of the land surveyor in Kafka’s The Castle, who gains a blasted grandeur as his goal recedes. Not that Mitchell is a martyr. He has stated that if he were given the chance to be cured of his epilepsy, as debilitating as it often is, he would not take it. Having howled at the moon, he cannot give it up but must pursue the moon in its insurmountable distance because it is the most beautiful object in the sky.

Lyle Rexer
Brooklyn, New York
Lyle Rexer is a critic, curator, and lecturer. He was educated at the University of Michigan, Columbia University (from which he holds B.A. and M.A. degrees), and Merton College, Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. He is the author of several books, including The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (2009), for which he received a grant from the Arts Writers Grant Program of the Andy Warhol Foundation, and Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes (2002), which showcased contemporary photographers working with 19th century photographic techniques. He has published many catalogue essays and hundreds of articles in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, Art in America, Harper’s, Aperture, Modern Painters, Parkett, and Tate, Etc. As a curator, he has organized exhibitions in the United States and internationally, including “The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography.” Lyle Rexer teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and is a columnist for Photograph magazine.

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