I have been thinking a lot about portraiture over the past few years because of the changes that artists of color have made to what has long been regarded as a conservative undertaking. Museum surveys of Kerry James Marshall, Jordan Casteel, and Jennifer Packer have upended the long-held presumption that portraiture is the domain of White artists and White subjects. As I see it, there is still much to be done in this area to increase self-definition and the visibility of people of difference.
I did not know John Mitchell’s work, but a reproduction of the painting “Woman from Bombay (Dona Varghese)” (2019) made me curious. The exhibition John Mitchell: Dreams at Planthouse consists of 10 paintings and five etchings. Typically measuring 18 by 14 inches, many of the portraits (or what I would call head shots) are of people of color, and are good, but I like the larger paintings much more. This is because they literally and metaphorically offer more to see and consider. In the smaller portraits, everyone looks serious; the subjects know they are posing and, as a result, the works have some stiffness, like high school yearbook pictures. Something unexpected happens in the larger paintings, starting with the subjects letting down their guard.
In “Bedstuy Bather” (2015-21), Mitchell depicts a nude Black woman seated comfortably in her bathtub, one knee bent, looking directly at the viewer. This is very different from Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of his wife, Marthe, immersed in the tub, or Edgar Degas’s pastels of women washing and drying themselves, or combing their hair. In those works, the (male) artist is looking, but the women are not looking back. He is the unseen voyeur, a familiar trope that Mitchell overturns. By doing this, he innovates a genre of figure painting that had become stale, making the subject of a nude woman in a bathtub fresh and unexpected, and not just because of the way he approaches it. What held my attention further is the care Mitchell paid to the entire artwork, including the neatly stacked rows of smooth stone tiles, separated by a prominent groove. Each rectangle is like a minimalist painting in itself composed of five rows of gray in different hues. In “Bedstuy Bather,” figuration and abstraction exist together. What comes across is Mitchell’s love of what paint can achieve in service to what the eye sees — rendering changes in skin tone as well as different kinds of surfaces, from the woman’s skin to the stone tiles to the porcelain tub.
In “Painter and Model” (2018-22), the largest and most ambitious work in the exhibition, two people look in our direction: a nude male model and a woman artist, who, standing at her easel, has stooped to look at us. Mitchell has switched the conventional roles of artist and model, something that Catherine Murphy also did in “Self Portraits” (1985). In her painting, Murphy (reflected in a mirror) works on a painting of her nude husband, the sculptor Harry Roseman, who is seated before the mirror and modeling a sculpture of himself.
In Mitchell’s version, the White artist, standing on the right side, parallel with the painting’s edge, has stopped painting. Her left hand is on her hip, and she holds a paintbrush in her right hand. On the easel is the unfinished painting of the nude model. She has turned her head to look toward us. The White nude model, wearing an open blue robe, is seated on a yellow Victorian couch in the upper left quadrant, looking at the artist. Mitchell’s set-up focuses on a moment when the artist and model have paused. That respite, and the fact that he seems to be looking at her and she is gazing at us, suggests that we have intruded upon them.
In both “Bedstuy Bather” and “Painter and Model,” Mitchell challenges the role of the artist as the authority who creates an entire world in paint. Mitchell’s worlds in these two paintings is contingent upon the viewer, whose presence completes the image. Instead of being passive, invisible presences (or voyeurs) we are seen; that moment of being seen by the nude woman sitting in her tub, the nude man in his open robe, and the artist holding a paintbrush is fresh and innovative. Conscious of the many profound changes occurring in our society, and the urgent need to challenge old tropes and reject conventional approaches to subject matter, Mitchell seems to be up to that task. Now in his early 50s, he seems poised to do more to shake the genre of portraiture up, to make it new again.
John Mitchell: Dreams continues at Planthouse gallery (55 West 28th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) though November 12. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
Editor’s Note, 10/25/2022, 5:04 pm EST: An earlier version of this article credited the incorrect photographer. This has since been corrected.