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KATHERINE MITCHELL
Places of Memory and Dreams
 
Installation view, Places of Memory and Dreams. Photo by Mike Jensen
 
Places of Memory and Dreams
Essay by Dr. Judith C. Rohrer
 

The works in this exhibition constitute a project that began, as Katherine Mitchell tells us (in the veiled handwriting embedded in the layers of one of the paintings) in an apartment open, light and airy in Berlin, in May 2010, where she encountered the solitude necessary for creative work. They represent "journeys," in time and space, inspired in large part by a reading of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. These journeys, which the phenomenologist philosopher would refer to as "reverie" or "daydreams," depart from (and return to) the oneirically resonant image of the house, a place of centered, nurtured, intimacy and a place where thoughts, memories and dreams coalesce and give rise to "dreams of elsewhere." Mitchell’s work here is a sustained exploration of the notion/image of the house and the poetic dream-memories which inhabit it. Recollecting abodes particularly significant to her own functions of inhabiting, being, and making, she has produced a series of paintings that record the places — the pauses in her journeys — which have inspired deep attachment even as they invite viewers to follow their own situated reveries.

Bachelard said (and Mitchell transcribes): "The house shelters day-dreaming; it protects the dreamer; it allows one to dream in peace. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths. Therefore the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling places of the past remain with us for all time."

Over at least three decades Mitchell has evinced a certain tectonic approach to the painted field, structured more often than not by a gridded framework of geometric regularity and ordered by numerical systems. While calling forth such architectural imagery as stairs, pathways, labyrinths, and mandalas, the decisions regarding placement, points of emphasis, color, material and mood have been essentially those of "feeling what was right"— finding a community of "mind and soul" as Bachelard would say. In recent years, her painting seemed to be turning away from architectonic precision toward a looser, more sensuous, painterly facture, reminiscent of weaving and unraveling. In her most recent show at the Sandler Hudson gallery she introduced words — palimpsests of literary and theoretical citations interspersed with personal commentary on such big questions as "What is beauty?" "What is the purpose of art?" "Wherein lies truth?" etc. Block letters seemed to give the pronouncements a certain lapidary gravity reinforced by frameworks that included concentric circles and squares.


In the current work, the circles and squares come together in Vitruvian community giving an underlying order to the canvases, while the writing is more personal — cursive, scrawling, handwriting following the rectangular grid but transgressing its linear boundaries; the content too, is seemingly (what does it say?) more personal — diaristic musings on imagined or recalled moments and places in the past, interspersed with relevant passages from Bachelard. The loose, meandering strokes are retained and randomly deployed, now evoking the fluid thrall of the daydream, the meanderings of the dreamer, just as the texts move in and out of legibility: veiled and unveiled form and content.

In almost all of the paintings, a luminous radiance emanates from the center of the squared circle matrix, from a house (or apartment) plan drawn from memory. The architect Lou Kahn (whose poetics align so nicely with Bachelard) once said, "a plan is a society of rooms. A real plan is one in which rooms have spoken to each other...[revealing] the structure of the spaces in their light." Diagonal radii of varying widths expand dynamically outward from these centered plans, multiplying as they do, and causing imbricated shifts of color as they cross the circles and squares. Or do they move dramatically inward, magnetically attracted to the core? Either seems possible, such is the pulsating force of the visual presence–a presence that is both active and at rest, dynamic and meditative at once.

 

Installation view, Places of Memory and Dreams. Photo by Mike Jensen

 

The energy is especially vibrant in the large, culminating, triptych, Sources, which brings together three of the most significant places in Mitchell’s artistic life: the Berlin studio where this reverie began, her birth and childhood home the "house of dream-memory," that original habitation that "has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting, and which we continue to inhabit oneirically throughout time "the "cradle" against which all places of retreat will be judged; and the house she calls "the artist’s house," the house where she became an adult, an artist, knowing herself through the simplicity, efficiency modesty and elegance of this simple place in the country, so connected to nature — "the house breathed with the world and I with it." In this extraordinarily rich and complex work, the diagonals radiating from the central (Berlin studio) image encounter those radiating from the birth house and the artist’s house to either side. These spiky, scintillating encounters animate an indeterminate yet effulgent "space" in between, masterfully and elegantly saved from chaos by the sheer wonder of technique. House dreaming is not linear, not a one-way street. Kahn liked the idea of "to places" and "from places," preferring the latter as the ones which mold us and from which we go out into the world transformed. In Mitchell’s work, to and from are phenomenologically intertwined in the push-pull arena of memory and the imagination.


On the last wall of the exhibition hangs the sculpture For Willie. This simple, poetic, image, unique in the artist’s work, gives insight into the way that a phenomenological poetics might work: The artist in Berlin, reading Bachelard, looks away from the book and begins to daydream of the places of childhood. The image of the humble house of Mrs. Gray Nichols where she was cared for on occasion as a child flickers in her soul. As she works to grasp that memory, to draw the plan of that house, another image presents itself — that of a bird trap fashioned from twigs of a tree broken by an ice storm. With Willie, the elderly brother of Mrs. Gray Nichols, who taught her, she delighted in its making, a delight that was magnified by the collusion never to use it to snare a bird. Instead, it marked a place where nourishment (birdseed) was to be had. The image we see here — lightweight linear components assembled so as to embody a spatial matrix — both calls forth the legendary image of the "primitive hut" at the very beginning of architecture, and echoes the reticular elements of the paintings in the room. The open lattice evinces a porous spatiality that seems to image the fluidity of remembering. In this large scale version of several smaller iterations that Mitchell has crafted over time, the stripped saplings culled from nature have been de-natured in their burnished whiteness, suggesting the realm of the ethereal, a realm beyond memory. Just as the trap does not ensnare, the house does not cage thought or imagination. Both are oneiric dream catchers, sheltering and nourishing reverie that can take us elsewhere.


It was said, in 2007, that Katherine Mitchell had moved away from the architectural. In this exhibition she has come home to it in many ways, enriched and emboldened by the meanderings and detours of the journeys in between.

 

The Artist’s House, 2011, Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 58 x 58 inches. Photo by Jack Lawing

 
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