Hopewell Junction, NY
Jason Mitcham is an artist whose practice ranges from drawing, to painting, to stop motion animation. He grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, but ultimately settled in New York City after graduating with an MFA from the University of Florida. He now lives in upstate New York with his wife and their two children, where he splits his time between teaching and making work in the studio.
Mitcham has held solo museum exhibitions at the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Flint Institute of Arts. He has created animations for musicians and filmmakers, including live concert scores and music videos for the Avett Brothers. Mitcham's work is included in numerous private collections, and in the public collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Mint Museum, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, and the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation. He has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant, a Snyderman Fund Art-Supporting- Art Grant. Additionally, Mitcham was a finalist for the 1858 Prize at the Gibbs Museum, and has been a resident at Yaddo.
“I found myself completely lost in a landscape that I had known so well. I knew in that moment I had to try to animate my paintings to speak to how rapidly our landscapes transform.”
Through an interdisciplinary approach rooted in painting and stop-motion animation, Mitcham’s work explores mapping, land use, layering of history and cycles of growth and decay. His work charts the complex web of social, political and environmental forces embedded in the landscape. Both his research and practice are heavily influenced by his history as a land surveyor.
When engaged in a stop-motion process, Mitcham’s animations are created by making hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of successive alterations to paintings. Marks are not made with a finished state in mind - rather each one contributes to the linear progression of the sequence. As the animations develop, the paintings become topographic “terrains” of built-up layers. Each painted canvas stands as an archaeological remnant of the process, an accumulation of movement and kinetic energy distilled on a quiet, still surface.
In the body of work being offered here on Artsuite, Mitcham uses the visual language of land use and mapping to explore moments of transition in the landscape. Survey flagging and other elements foreshadow imminent development, while depictions of maps become pictorial devices that interrupt the image as seen from eye-level. The maps illustrated in these paintings were created by Mitcham’s father’s civil engineering and land surveying firm, an autobiographical dimension that complicates their utilitarian purpose. Heightening this further, Mitcham surveyed many of the sites himself. This work layers competing representations of the landscape - the aerial objectivity of the map is at odds with the observed subjectivity that’s presented from the ground level. Ultimately, these competing modes force us to consider the landscapes around us, and question the social ramifications of their use and development.
How did growing up in the South shape your conception of and approach to landscape?
“ I’m not sure this is specifically “southern” in nature, but growing up outside of Greensboro in the 80s and 90s I saw that particular landscape and place transform dramatically during those decades. I was born in a quintessential track-house suburb that derived from the Levittown prototype (although I had no awareness of that history until I moved to New York in my twenties). At age eight our family moved to an old Tudor house that had been adapted by many generations. It sat on a main road that was not part of any neighborhood, and the land had been used for light farming in the past. So it was a completely different experience. And it made me more aware of the rapid transformation of so many regional landscapes, many of them old farms, into suburban developments. This site is still what I consider home, in the sense of Lucy Lippard’s notion that place is the locus of desire, and it’s been the point from which I’ve built my understanding of the landscape. That land and house was taken and razed by the state of North Carolina in an act of eminent domain to widen a road in 2011, and that event has profoundly shaped my work as well.
A few years before this occurred, while riding on a new beltline on the drive back from the Greensboro airport to visit my family, I found myself completely lost in a landscape that I had known so well. I knew in that moment I had to try to animate my paintings to speak to how rapidly our landscapes transform. As soon as I got back to NYC I made my first painting animation.
Working for my father’s civil engineering/land surveying firm also contributed. I got to see this process happen firsthand, and I began to understand all the complex forces that contribute to how land and property are used, developed and valued.
Also, the automobile was a requirement for existing in the South that I grew up in. I had no idea there were other options until I traveled outside of the South and abroad! Looking back, I realized that so much of my understanding and experience of the landscape came from the viewpoint of the car, and the paths through which cars travel.”
Tell us a little about how you find your way to projects and / or subjects? Do the ideas emerge first (followed by the work), or does the conceptualization come from a more exploratory studio or research practice?
“ It’s a bit of both. Sometimes there is a clear idea or narrative that the work has to follow, but often it is a few vague or general ideas that are developed and clarified through the working process. In college I was always throwing my painting gear in the back of my car and driving around painting out in the landscape. This was an act of discovery without any pre-determined program, and I still use this method at times. This gives me an opportunity to look for curiosities out in the landscape as an observer and painter, but then track those backwards in time and history though research and more studio exploration, opening up larger conversations.
To me, my process is very akin to being a land surveyor. There is preliminary research, followed by fieldwork through on-site exploration and recording, and then the information gathered is brought back indoors to be reassembled and further explored.”
Talk a little bit about how time operates in your work. There are so many layers of it - from your exploration of ruins, to the depiction of a more contemporary, suburban landscape, but also the way that your paintings evolve and change sequentially in service of creating your stop-motion animations.
“Time is a central theme throughout my work. Once I started exploring time-based media combined with painting, it opened so many possibilities. The work could engage with speeds of time that are normally imperceptible, from the almost instantaneous all the way to geological time that is far too slow for us to experience. Time could also be reversed, cut, split, rearranged, stacked on top of itself…there’s infinite possibilities.
More basically, when I started animating my paintings it slowed me way down. I’m a very fast painter, and constructing a moving image using a stop motion process made things much slower. Something that flies by on screen in a few seconds might take days to create. It also forced me to compose in both time and space – I had to think about two-dimensional composition as well as how things would unfold over time simultaneously.
In terms of ruins, in particular modern ruins, I find the speed at which these have occurred in our landscapes unbelievably quick. I’m thinking of places like Detroit, Flint and Pruitt Igoe. Animating my paintings allows me to speak to such things, along with the other end of the spectrum – development.
There’s also the notion of me continually overlaying or obliterating my paintings in service of the narratives as you mention. The painting has to be allowed to destroy itself in order to become itself. Even though layers get painted over, often many times, the viewer can still discern traces of what came before. To me this is a metaphor for time experienced in the landscape. In a sense the paintings become terrains. After the animating process, the video allows the viewer to see all of the painting’s history that has become hidden below the surface unfold at warp speed. At that point the painting has become an artifact of the animating process. ”
Who are a few artists that have impacted the way you think about your own work the most? And is there someone right now that you're particularly excited about?
“ One obvious answer is William Kentridge. My work, along with anyone who animates paintings and drawings, owes a huge debt to him. When I first started, I really wanted to apply Kentridge’s process to painting, and I wasn’t aware of anyone who had done it (probably not the case) so it felt exciting and fresh.
But just as important have been both Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta Clark. When I found Smithson’s work and writings about modern ruins, suburbia, time and entropy I connected immediately. His notion of using entropy as a material agent within the work was a key impetus in my decision to make my paintings move and record the process. Gordon Matta Clark’s exploration and intervention in architecture - splitting it, slicing it, removing parts, creating weird and unsettling views of mundane and normal spaces we know well - always felt like it directly related to what I experienced as a land surveyor.
Recently I’ve been really excited about Emma Webster’s work. I love how she constructs dioramas of landscapes, some in virtual reality, and then paints from them- and how her process highlights that nature, and its representation by humans, always contains artifice.
I’ve also been looking a lot at the paintings of Enrique Martinez Celeya. I find his work deeply poetic.
Both of these artists are also fantastic writers. ”