Dennis Lee Mitchell

Dennis Lee Mitchell’s Smoke Drawings and Related Work by Donald Kuspit

There’s a contradiction at the core of being, and some art seems to embody it, ingeniously symbolizing it to startling effect. Dennis Lee Mitchell uses smoke and stone to do so. Seemingly incommensurate—smoke is insubstantial, elusive, oddly refined, in constant process, spreads and finally dissipates in space, disappearing in the atmosphere, so that we tend to forget its toxic character; stone is clay hardened into solidity, earth made proverbially eternal, graspable and durable as smoke never is—Mitchell uses them to symbolize the opposites that inform the ontological contradiction. And the ceramic process, for where there’s smoke there’s fire, and without fire one can’t change clay into stone. One can say that Mitchell’s art is a meditation on the ironic dynamics of ceramic creativity.
He makes drawings of smoke, in effect apotheosizing it, and the hand that swiftly makes the drawings, for it moves like and with the smoke. The smoke drawings resemble figure drawings, for the smoke sometimes seems to take female shape, or at least evoke it. Untitled (# 32), Untitled (# 47), and Them, all 2010 are examples. Otherwise it seems like bodily tissue or mutilated skin, as though Mitchell had stripped the body to its raw fundamentals, leaving us with an oddly disembodied residue. One way or another, the anatomy of the body is evoked by Mitchell’s smoke drawings, suggesting that he’s working from a model, or at least a mental model—a sort of ghostly object of desire. She may be ungraspable smoke, but we feel her presence in Mitchell’s deft “touch.” The abyss of swirling black smoke in Untitled (#26) and Untitled (# 21) suggests delirious desire—red hot desire consuming itself, going up in black smoke. Mitchell’s smoke materializes out of nowhere, his figure materializes out of the smoke, like a mirage, but one senses the immateriality of it all. The protean, unstable smoke is a will o’ the wisp that will disappear back into the oblivion of the blank white surface and field from which it emerged, like a deceptive genii.
Mitchell is not only a master of smoke—lyrically (and often boldly) expressionistic, to locate his drawings art historically—but of clay, as his stoneware and sculptures make clear. His circular ceramic plates are aesthetically—and ironically—ingenious: he breaks and reassembles them, then draws smoke on them. As noted, the smoke suggests the fire of the ceramic process: indelibly imprinted on and fused with the plate, it becomes an emblem of the firing process, a sort of symbolic condensation of its beginning and end. The dirty smoke is dramatically at odds with the plate’s clean white surface, suggesting that the process can fail. Breaking the plates acknowledges that the process is not perfect let alone foolproof. Staging an accident, Mitchell suggests that the whole thing can go up in smoke.
The simple circular form is geometrical perfection itself, the complexly formless smoke is implicitly imperfect: plate and smoke are at odds, however tied together in a sort of ceramic Gordian knot or double bind. The circle is in effect the stable stage on which the amorphous smoke “performs.”

Some of the smoke figures seem to be modern dancers, twisting and turning—entwined—in unstable and strained intercourse, as Untitled (# 11), Untitled (# 13), and Untitled (# 26) suggest. They “romantically” stretch to the limits of the plate, expressionistically grand gestures touching its edges, as though to shapelessly surge beyond them—as painterly gestures do in modernist field paintings—but are contained by its circular form, like Leonardo’s classically proportioned Vitruvian man in his cosmic circle. Since Alfred Barr first argued (in 1936) that modernism climaxed in non-geometrical and geometrical abstraction (his terms), the ambition of high abstraction has been to reconcile these opposites while acknowledging their difference. Mitchell does so by way of his bizarrely personal and surreally metamorphic gestural smoke and geometrical plates, outwardly simple and inwardly complex, for he has broken the circle into oddly shaped fragments, giving it uncanny presence. In a further dialectical irony, the fragmenting smoke “reflects” the fragmented plate, confirming that nothing is as solid as it seems at first glance: it’s all smoke and mirrors, for the smoke is mirrored in the plates.
Mitchell’s welded clay sculptures make the double meaning of smoke explicit. Smoke may be a symbol of spirit in the process of becoming body, but it is also a reminder that fire is dangerous, and can cause destruction when it is not handled carefully. As noted, it is always a risky business to fire clay. The smoke that rises from the furnace may be a sign that it has “misfired”; the resulting work may be a noble ruin. Paul Valéry argues that ceramics is the most ambitious and noblest of the arts because it is always subject to the uncertainty of chance. Fire is “demiurgic,” he asserts, and demiurges are dangerous, unpredictable, and ultimately uncontrollable—unless artistically mastered. Mitchell’s Under My Skin series, 2007-2009 are his most risk-taking ceramic works. In more ways than one: they are magnificent ruins, at once of nature and humanity—crucified, wrecked, mortified figures (# 3 explicitly) that seemed to have been burned at the stake. Mitchell’s Carcass, 2009 is the final result. It suggests the devastation that fire can cause even as it uses fire to extraordinary existential and expressive effect. The series, a tour de force of high ceramic art, makes a strong statement about what hellish fire—manmade or natural—can do to mankind and nature, confirming that the ceramic process is the ironic radical essence of the creative process.