Nearly the first thing that you will hear about the painter Nancy Mitchnick, who has recently returned to her native Detroit to live, is that she was a member of the influential Cass Corridor Group back in the day. This diverse group of artists from the 70’s showed their work in Detroit Institute of Art’s 1980 exhibition Kick Out The Jams at a time when civic art museums (and the DIA in particular) were more open to supporting regional artists. The show looms large in the history of art in Detroit as a touchstone of particular significance.
But it seems to me not so interesting that Mitchnick started out here, but that she has come back, bringing with her 40 years of experience on the coasts, both east (New York, Boston) and west (Los Angeles) as an artist and painter. In her current solo show at MOCAD, Nancy Mitchnick: Uncalibrated, it’s clear that she has something to say about her past and present home town and ample technical means with which to say it.
Most artists who paint or photograph the city are preoccupied with Detroit’s decrepit commercial architecture. Buildings like Michigan Central Depot and the Packard Plant come in for quite a bit of this attention as stand-ins for the decay of the city. As such, much of this work has become a visual cliche sometimes referred to as “ruin porn”. By contrast, Mitchnick’s pictures are highly personal and grounded in her particular mode of expression as well as in the particularity of her subjects.
Mitchnick grew up in Detroit, and many if the paintings in this show are portraits of the domestic architecture of her former neighborhood, including her childhood home on Buffalo Street. The houses she paints are of frame construction and vulnerable to destruction by fire and neglect. In these pictures they are shown in their entirety, squared off frontally, and many urban features such as signage and utility lines are edited out. In consequence the paintings are both rural and urban in tone, a perfect distillation of many Detroit neighborhoods now.
It should be noted that most of the paintings are quite large, giving the impression that you are physically standing in front of the house. So in case you think you are getting an accurate impression of this work by looking at it online, think again. You will only be able to fully appreciate these artworks by standing in the same room with them.
Mitchnick’s many years of working as an artist on the coasts are evident in the ambitious scale of the paintings and in her assured brush work and accomplished composition. Two predominantly pink paintings hung side by side (Good Neighbors) made me think of Diebenkorn’s abstractions with their large fields of pastel color and implied grid. And the infringement of the natural world on Detroit’s decaying built environment put me in mind of some landscapes by Alex Katz. She describes the inevitable effects of time and nature on everything human and human-made; the effect is elegaic.
It is worthwhile when you visit MOCAD to look at the vitrine installed in the center of the gallery. It contains a number of sketches and photographs used by the artist to research her paintings. There can hardly be a clearer contrast between the relative strengths of two media than in a comparison of the photo of a burned out house and the corresponding painting Big Burn.The black and white photo is cool,stark and feels archival, while the painting is nostalgic, emotional, and captures the fleeting moment in time. Also in the vitrine is an enlightening picture related to the large painting Nancy and Mimi from Another Planet, in which painter and her mother are depicted as classical Roman caryatids, separated by insurmountable distance and backed by two miniature versions of Mitchnick’s paintings.
Mitchnick’s perspective as a painter is different from that of many artists who have been in the city throughout its troubles. Painting as an artistic mode of expression is not so favored here in Detroit, photography, collage, installation and assemblage being preferred for their more immediate incorporation of the substance of the city. Perhaps it is distrust for the lyrical qualities of painting that seems to be at odds with the surrounding environment, or maybe it’s uneasiness with the necessity for every painting to express not only the issues of the moment, but also to address its place in art history and to make a case for its inclusion in that history going forward. In any case, Mitchnick seems to have no trouble with that and this alone makes her a valuable addition to the visual arts scene in Detroit.
One of the most thrilling things in this show to my mind as a working artist, is Mitchnick’s willingness to take risks in her art as exemplified by two new paintings at the entrance to the show, Night Heron and White Front. In these two unresolved paintings, the artist seems to be fearlessly headed in a more expressionistic direction. In Night Heron, she begins to incorporate objects (totems?) like snakes, vegetables, objects and the like, superimposed on a formalized version of a house. Also included is a rather awkwardly drawn, almost life-size female figure cribbed from an Indian miniature. Mitchnick is wrestling with some very interesting countervailing forces within these paintings, and her future course is unclear but intriguing.
As the city of Detroit shifts and stirs beneath our feet, we need artists of brilliance to visually record and comment on this moment in the city’s history. Nancy Mitchnick is uniquely suited to be foremost among those. Her particular devotion to the medium of painting and her status as a master artist will go some way in rounding out visual culture in Detroit. Nancy Mitchnick: Uncalibrated will be on view at MOCAD from now through July 31, 2016. For more information go here