Cinder There Is
Surrealism and the Smoke Drawings of Dennis Lee Mitchell
H. Peter Steeves
In thrall to the twists of his brain’s involutions
The cranial mists and synaptic occlusions
He’d had to contend with since he’d had his first stroke
Like trying to sculpt something solid from smoke.
—David Rakoff, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish
[You] turned my heart to a cinder,
And with each passing day
You’d be less tender and more tinder.
—Elvis Costello, “The Only Flame in Town”
Il y a là cendre.
—Jacques Derrida, Cinders
Thinking is an aesthetic act. Like a sculptor, the thinker needs material from which to work—a shared world and a common medium—but also a plan, a hope to make something. Being, too, is an aesthetic act. Like a painter, that which is requires skill as well as stuff to be, a chance to make something out of something-like-but-not-quite nothing. To someone losing his mind, thought might come to be dreaded, like having to sculpt with smoke. To the broken-hearted, love turns dreams to ashes. But perhaps there is something to be made from our common soot. Perhaps there is an ashen trace in all acts of creation and being. Perhaps: it there has there cinder—cinder there is.
It would be easy to say that Dennis Lee Mitchell’s smoke drawings are visceral and corporal—mere pictures of bodies and body parts in all of their fleshy worldliness. After Freud, such an interpretation is likely not even up to us: all curves evoke breasts and buttocks, all circles echo orifices, and anything longer than it is wide must, eventually, be a phallus. That we might project such ways of seeing onto Mitchell’s work is telling, but more, perhaps, for the way in which it situates the art rather than merely its audience. It makes us think, in fact, of Mitchell’s relation to surrealism.
The term “surréaliste” was coined by Guillaume Apollinaire, and appeared in print for the first time in the introduction to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias nearly a century ago. The relationship between philosophy and art was there at the beginning of the movement as Apollinaire admitted that the French translation of Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” into “le surhomme” served, in part, as inspiration to find something über reality itself for this new moment in art. Nietzsche, Hegel, Freud, and Marx soon became the intellectual godfathers of surrealism. The idea itself was to find something that would not displace reality with a new reality, but rather call into question the idea of an uninterpreted reality of any kind.
In the early twentieth-century, then, surrealists—reacting in part to the horrors of WWI, the horrors of what such mass carnage had done to bodies and to the body of logos—were the first to interpret the world by means of championing a process of applying smoke to paper called “fumage.” Wolfgang Paalen became known for the technique as he mastered the ability to paint with a candle, applying the smoke and soot to a white canvas in a process he likened to automatic writing. Salvador Dalí called it “sfumato,” an homage to the Italian “sfumare” (meaning “to evaporate like smoke”) which was a technique that had been more or less perfected by Leonardo da Vinci more than four centuries earlier. Originally, the Renaissance painting method was meant to create a more realistic final product—one in which the move from light to shadow on a subject’s face, for instance, would be soft, blurred, and without borders or lines. It was painting light “in the manner of smoke,” as da Vinci described it, “or beyond the focus plane.” It could be argued that the early Impressionists took the goal to an extreme, painting only in a foggy haze with no lines and nothing delineated. Most of Monet is, after all, a vague mist. It was just this blur against which Cézanne was reacting, reintroducing lines and crispness (as well as a more embodied and less mathematical notion of perspective) into painting. If the surrealists were referencing da Vinci in their desire not only to paint smokily but to paint, literally, with smoke, they were also reacting to the way in which Cézanne had recently returned a focus to the world. The surrealists fixed candle smoke to a canvas, letting it bleed into hazy figures without apparent borders, but then they said, “This is something concrete; and whatever concrete thing is there it is as much a creation of the viewer as it is of the artist—a co-creation of the seer and the seen—and that is what reality always is.” What we see in Mitchell’s work is there to be seen, of course, but “there” might very well mean some place inside us that we share with the work and the artist and a community of other beings.
Sur-realism would have been, literally, south (sur) of realism for the Spanish Dalí. It is below, beneath, under realism on the map. It founds realism not in a modernist, metaphysical sense, but in terms of being more real than realism because realism pretends to be something that it is not. And so, what is both über and sur of Mitchell’s canvases? What founds them without appealing to some external foundation, some false ontology?
Derrida argues that we only have being when we are ashen. Our real reality is found in smoke. “No matter how much you resist it,” he writes in Feu la Cendre, “you have mass and volume only when covered with cinders, as one covers one’s head with ashes in a sign of mourning. There is a rebellion against the Phoenix and also the affirmation of the fire without place or mourning.” This is a reality above which we will not rise like a fire-bird. Instead we must come to terms with our finality and with the bodies of our loved ones all around us, turned to ash. Haunted by the logic-defying (one might even say, surréaliste) phrase, Il y a là cendre, Derrida realizes the way in which the relationship between cinders and bodies—all that is there, all that is—throws reason, which is to say thinking, into a tailspin.
Bodies turn to ash. And they came from ash as well. We are literally made from the ashes of dead stars—the smoldering cinders of supernovae that seeded the universe with the elements that make our form of life possible. The universe recycles in patterns of eternal return, the future always sliding into the past, the past coming up once again, now this flesh, now that one. So let us say that if we see bodies in Mitchell’s canvases it is only to be expected. The amazing thing, then, is the way in which he presents the soot of flesh for us to see again.
If we begin in the bellies of stars, how fitting that some of Mitchell’s recent work brings to mind black and white photos from the Hubble: images of spiral and disc galaxies splayed out before us, stars coming into being and exiting in ash (see, e.g., “Untitled #6213” and “Untitled “#4313” [2012-13]). The “Infinite” series from 2012 evokes wormholes, perhaps, more than galaxies, but these are still works of art that transport us away from ourselves, from our own bodies to the place that makes our bodies possible. There is something cosmological in the way that Mitchell places the smoke down on the paper, letting the movement in time and space take place.
From the bellies of stars to the bellies of our earthly mothers, the 2013 “Finite” and “Infinite” series bring to mind ultrasound images, life gestating inside a smoky womb. These are bridges, perhaps, between our reality and the final image of a cosmically-gestating, re-born, fetal astronaut in Kubrick’s 2001. But what is growing inside Mitchell’s smoke-wombs is even less recognizable as our species though still fleshy—with thin skin and ghostly organs and thick Cézanne-like lines saying, “Here is the body stripped of all of its other modifiers; here is the next step in your evolution.”
Apollinaire’s calligrammes painted poem-pictures of missing flesh. Paalen colored-in dancing creatures over the soot on his canvases, bodies twisting in still motion. And Dalí’s elephants walked on spindlelegs while his giraffes burned to char. Mitchell, for his part, lets lines and blurs create bodies in a new-old way, a way that lets us inside while also asking after what it means to have thought ourselves outside from the start. Something like this was already at work in 2007-09 in his sculpture series “Under My Skin” in which welded clay takes on the form of tree bark masquerading as flayed cadavers, our collective epidermes (his and ours) sliced off to reveal the truth of the space inside. But it is arguably in the X-ray smoke drawings from 2010 that the project reaches a postmodern highpoint of eternal return.
If Mitchell’s later work is moving us toward both inner- and outer-space, it was the inner that began his journey, with a 2010 series of drawings looking like eerie X-rays that show us the inner workings of other works of art. In “Untitled #47” a lumbosacral smoke-X-ray shows a spinal column split like a wishbone and shoved down into the body, the curve of the back giving way to distorted buttocks and twisted flesh. This could be a side X-ray of John Currin’s “The Cripple” (1997) calling to us and questioning our sensibilities, her red-brown hair and strapless champagne dress invisible, her black and white inner-body reduced to its black and white being. “Untitled #8,” held up to the light, seems to be an image of God’s fractured fibula—as if Melville’s Pip not only went mad from seeing God’s foot upon the treadle of the cosmic loom, but saw the X-ray of the injury such labor had caused God and then went on to regain his mind. And “Untitled #21” exposes the inner-workings of two supine bodies, one melting into the other, like a photo-negative X-ray of Waterhouse’s “Sleep and His Half-Brother Death” (1874), the two young men resting, waiting, each unable to tell if it is he himself or his brother who will never wake up again, though we know—as Mitchell’s automatic smoke writing has painted sleep the darker and death the lighter (in opposition to Waterhouse)—that erotic little tastes of death, no matter how we come by them, will always have the last word. In each case, then, Mitchell’s smoke shows us the inner-workings of art, the hidden framework that, when exposed, is as fragile as a bone of smoke.
Two years later the process is perfected in 2012’s “Untitled #812,” a long series of disjointed images presented as the ultimate X-ray version of Exquisite Corpse (cadavre exquis), a parlor game invented by the surrealists in 1925 in which one artist would draw part of a body, fold the paper over so that the image was hidden, and then pass along the page to the next artist who would draw another part of a body without knowing how the images would—or could—connect. When the page was unfolded at the end of the process, a compound person had been born, the result of a community of creative acts that seemingly should not fit together yet managed to do so nonetheless. Mitchell’s six-panel cadaver in “Untitled #812” exquisitely pieces together X-rays of the finest body parts: here the outstretched dog-leg of Diogenes from Raphael’s “The School of Athens” (1510); here the twisted snout-mouth of Francis Bacon’s “Second Version of Triptych 1944” (1988); here the inner sinews of an arm-wing from Magritte’s dark angel in “Homesickness” (1940); here the river-bloated torso of Shakespeare’s Ophelia; here the forbidden curve of Lolita’s back; here the bent elbow of Marina Abramović resting on the table where she sits, silently, eternally, staring into our soul. Placed end-to-end, the historical body is laid out for us, a beautiful carcass; and if we squint, it even looks a bit like a strand of magnified DNA coiled up on the wall. It takes a community to make, and to make sense of, Mitchell’s body of work. And within the inner that has become outer, from the macrocosmic that returns us from space to the here and now, we are always in this together.
Is this all a Rorschachian exercise, a projection of meaning and being into a void? Of course. And for what more could we hope when we blow out the candle and make our wish? Like love, like thought, like bodies themselves: this, too, is ephemeral. Meaning is nothing more than a wisp of smoke, and yet it is everything.
Steven Cramer’s striking “Villanelle After a Burial” (1997) describes the cremated remains of his parents—one a coarse white coral, the other a fine gray sand—claiming that “whatever they turned into wasn’t ash.” Whatever Mitchell’s canvases turn into by means of our viewing isn’t ash, either. Yet Cramer’s spectral conclusion remains our collective epithet. A cinder is all there is. Look, look again, and keep looking. Like all who came before and will come later: “we have to face the aftermath of flesh.”