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Dennis Lee Mitchell: Painter In Spite of Himself

Victor M. Cassidy

Mitchell's "Thin As Her Skin," smoke on paper

Dennis Lee Mitchell wanted to be a painter, but went into clay after a teacher in art school declared that he had no gift for the brush. He made ceramics for years, but recently changed his work, showing decorated plates and semi-abstract drawings at Chicago’s Dubhe Carreño Gallery.

The artist is best known for wall-hung ceramic sculptures that look like tree branches at life size. These sculptures recall the half-rotted woody materials that one might find on a forest floor–or even petrified wood. The viewer sees deep inside the form which seems to be disintegrating.

Mitchell modeled the tree sculptures with his hands, bisque fired them, and then used a welding torch to melt and weld parts of them together. He colored them in browns and blacks with the smoky flame of a welding torch. Sometimes he employed the heat of the torch to leach other tones out of the material.

The key to his ceramics process, says Mitchell, is that “the material transforms, changes appearance and shape.” Something “has to happen with the material,” he continues. “It has to undergo some transformation to make it legitimate to me.”

The new work at the Dubhe Carreño Gallery—nineteen ceramic plates colored in dark browns and an entire wall of drawings—was completely two-dimensional, for all intents and purposes. Mitchell’s drawings, which seemed almost brushed onto the paper, were semi-abstract patterns that suggested different parts of the figure, landscape, bone, and (at least to some of us—the artist disagrees) the flesh of fish. Some of the drawings were so alive that they almost moved.

Mitchell's ceramic plate, smoke, broken and reassembled

“Smoke patterns on paper”

The artist told Chicago Art Magazine that he made the new work during a sabbatical semester away from his teaching job. “I gloried in the time I had to think and work,” he said, “doing in six months what normally takes me eighteen. I experimented in the studio, venturing into three or four new areas. Only some of what I made is in the show.”

About a year before his sabbatical began, the artist used a blowtorch to make a few “smoke patterns on paper,” which colleagues liked. He did not take this work too seriously, but made a few more pieces and at one point, he had about a dozen hanging in his studio. Dubhe Carreño saw them, loved them, and asked to show them. When the sabbatical began, Mitchell wanted to make more smoke drawings, but felt that he should retain his long-term commitment to clay. “I kept fighting myself,” he says. Eventually he abandoned ceramics for the new work.

Mitchell makes smoke drawings in two ways. By adjusting the oxygen/fuel mixture on a blowtorch, he produces abundant carbon smoke which he deposits onto paper much like a painter waving a brush. He’s also made smoke in a can, pressurized it, and sprayed it onto paper. “To a great extent,” he says, “I draw intuitively.”

“I can control parts of the drawing process and other parts I can’t,” he explains. “There’s always that edge where I know what I’m doing but don’t want to be too sure because that ruins the piece. I have to keep that edge kind of sharp where I never feel that sure of myself.” On a good day, the artist makes from 100 to 300 drawings and discards ninety percent of them. Sometimes the paper catches fire.

Mitchell's "Untitled," smoke on paper

Dark, transparent forms

Mitchell’s drawings contain dark, semi-abstract forms, generally transparent and often placed on top of each other so we see through the layers. Consistently organic, the forms have distinct outlines and can seem almost collaged onto the paper. There is no perspective in the drawings, which gives them a Chinese quality.

Mitchell has two types of decorated white ceramic plate in the show. On one wall there are nineteen plates, each eleven inches in diameter. He has made a mocha-colored smoke drawing on each plate, and then has broken and reassembled the plate to fracture the drawn pattern. The effect is sufficiently unsettling to make a viewer look very carefully, which is surely the artist’s intention. There are also four large oval plates with smoke drawings on them. Fresh in conception and execution, this is a very solid, satisfying show.

Mitchell’s happy with what he’s doing now and the direction he’s taken. “I haven’t done any new work recently,” he says, “but I’m about to get started again and I know where to go, what to do, and how to proceed.”

“It doesn’t mean that one day I won’t go and work in clay some more,” he continues. “It’s more like I want to be able to have the freedom to inspect these ideas wherever they may need to go. So right now they’re smoke on paper or smoke on clay and they’re working out nicely for me.”