Monday Modern Art Madness #13 and #14: Chaotic Nature in Joan Mitchell’s “Begonias”, and “City Landscape”.

Out of all of the luminaries of the New York school, the two that have had a gigantic (YUGE) impact on my work personally, from an earlier age even, has been the works of Milton Resnick and Joan Mitchell, I can also add Frankenthaler into the mix as well. Before transitioning into the landscape and then general impressionism, when I ventured into my painting muscles, the abstraction that most appealed to me were the painterly, stroke-driven and color intensive styles that are present in Mitchell’s work. In this double feature of MMAM, I am going to highlight two works from her Corpo Di lavoro that has inspired me and my painting style over the years, so this should be an impassioned review. Let me set up a scene to introduce Mitchell’s work: Its the 1070s in the bougie art world, and everywhere you turn, the avant-garde gets more freakish, expressive, and sensationalist. Everything becomes about performance art, body modification, installations of staggering proportions, Land art assemblages, prepared/found art, Bueys painting his face gold and being locked in a cage with a wolf, etc. Painting was declared “dead” for a time, especially any art with a whiff of romanticism in it. But Mitchell stood firm as a woman against time (no pun intended, I am in no way supporting or comparing her to Devi, i just thought it was an amusing meme-phrase), and declared herself to be “abstract-expressionist, and old hat”, and her works were deeply sensual, naturalistic and romanticist.

Mitchell led the way in carrying on the impressionist tradition in a quintessentially American style. Being a later player in the AB-EX movement, she in many ways was “reactionary” in the sense that she forced the art world through sheer will to recognize the original purpose and intent of impressionism, while transforming the genre by bringing it into a more abstract territory; What I mean by this is that Mitchell took her inspiration from the same well as the impressionists, be it nature, emotions, a scene from daily life that is odd or exhilarating, and poetry. In the pantheon of “feminist” artists (side note: the scare-quotes are to denote the debate surrounding the term, if a woman artist should be boiled down to being “feminist” as a woman in art, or if the art even has political connotations, but for the sake of it, let us assume that there are deeper political connotations to Mitchell’s work), Mitchell resonates with what some would term the uniquely “feminine” aspect of art. I do not mean this in the pejorative sense, but her feminine art was similar to that of Carr’s or Kahlo’s, it is deeply emotionally moving, powerful, full of life and the celebration of beauty that can at the same time be terrible and sublime.

Mitchell took inspiration from De Kooning’s style of painterly brush work, and of course the (post) impressionists. Her large canvases took Monet’s mannerisms in painting to another level, taking one tiny piece of nature, such as in the first piece, ‘Begonias” (1982), where we have a patch of a Begonia field in orange and pink pedals, abstract and blown up to the absolute limits of abstract representation, creating the “all over painting” effect of her 50s AB-EX fore bearers. On the bottom we can see patches of blue stems and green shoots roughed onto the wall canvas, each brush stroke “coming off like a knife-fight” as one critic explained, filled with energetic  assemblages of strokes and thick paint. The reality of her studio practice is that, despite her work appearing like a frenzied dash to rip up the canvas with violent stabbing strokes, Mitchell was a careful artist, often achieving the visible brush stroke look with careful glides, doing one spot, then going back to sit and reflect on what the canvas needs next. She also worked in series of similar paintings, as did Monet and the other impressionists.

Mitchell used nature as a platform for her own inner life, often never planning out a painting and “going with the flow” based on the emotions felt by a certain time and place, thus giving an even more “pure” or idealized abstract impression of a scene or natural landscape then the light-chasing, outdoor painting impressionists. Although on the other side of that debate, the Impressionists were capturing the purity of nature through immersion into nature (as i have argued before elsewhere). Mitchell’s studio practice and muse is much more akin to the Chinese Taoist and Zen landscape painters, who often ventured into the mountains and meditated, contemplated and gazed at them for long periods of time without taking field sketches, and then painting individual mountains and scenes purely out of memory and ineffable feeling. One could make a butchered and perennial assertion that Mitchell was a Zen landscape painter of the modern world.

Let us move on to the second part of this double feature, one of Mitchell’s most famed works “City Landscape” (1955); Here in this piece we have her well known thin stroke style of painting, this time incorporating thick paint patches of mixed and broken color blocks surrounding the chaotic assemblages of the city core. We also see her incorporating the use of drip techniques with thinned out paint, revealing an even more reactionary practice of painting with the large canvas upright, like De-Kooning and Resnick, whilst painters in this genre favored painting on the floor or on tables like Pollock.

The imagined city Mitchell paints is of pure deterritoralized space, were the multiplicity of thread-like passages intersect and bleed into a numinous combination of connections and cross-cuts on a flat plane. I use such Deleuzian metaphors because this is the megalopolis city built by virtual nomads, no grids or striated functionary blocks like in so many planned cities driven by utilitarian concerns that utilize instrumental reason. Mitchell paints the city with the impression of city lights and colors all coming together in a blurry view or haze of interaction, walking through a city at night while squinting or intoxicated reveals this hidden reality quite well.

Lastly, Mitchell painted the cityscape in the same manner as she painted the landscape, revealing some interesting connections in her work. Mitchell is implicitly stating that both the human creation and the creation of nature operate much in the same way on an immanent plane. Both have a hierarchy and then free or fugitive spaces of chaotic freedom within them, and both reveal a creative potential that is ready for the artist to express. Mitchell revealed, like the impressionists in their prepped garden paintings or their landscapes and seascapes next to industrial and city structures, that even a buzzing city can have a hidden artistic beauty to it, and is not simply a cold and alien force that is completely detached from nature. Her painting style reveals an odd symbiosis between the natural world and city life, that among the jungles of concrete grey, is a phantasmagoria of colors, passage ways, and micro-fissures between locations, much like how treading through a forest is like.

 

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