Introduction by Isabel Manalo
It was the summer of 2005 and John declared a “no girls for a year” rule after ending a relationship nine months earlier. It didn’t last long. He was successfully convinced to go out one night by a friend when John consequently found himself in the midst of a lively loft party in Chinatown hosted by a Norwegian artist. It was there he was introduced to Anki.
I first became friends with John as classmates at Yale’s Painting program. We both finished in 1999 and as with most Yale MFA graduates, John moved to New York City. He moved into a 2400 square foot storefront space in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn and has been there ever since. By happy coincidence in 2008, I was spending a couple of weeks at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) residency in Mt. San Angelo, VA where I met Anki. I remember how she made this amazing life size female figure out of twigs and placed it in the forest along a path where the residents could quietly encounter it. It was at VCCA where Anki and I realized we had a mutual artist friend John Mitchell — and in her case — her significant other.
Today John and Anki continue to share the large studio space in Brooklyn where both make paintings and sculptures and actively exhibit. I am happy to present this exceptionally generous, talented and kind artist couple as they interview one another about their ideas and process that are so vastly different in style and approach and yet are equally committed to a very solid painting practice.
John interviews Anki:
John Mitchell: Can you talk about your studio. This is a small space compared to the space you had previously. This studio is about 12 by 15 feet.
Anki King: It is about half the size of my last studio which was lost to “progress”. The old factory building that housed over 200 artists was torn down and replaced by a 40 story apartment building. I still manage to make rather large works in here. The largest paintings I do are about 96” x 96”, not always a square, but that is pretty much the largest dimensions I can fit on these walls and I can fit two at a time. Where I feel a space limitation is with my ideas for sculptural works. The space does not quite allow for that.
JM: Can you talk about scale? You make really big paintings sometimes and little ones sometimes. How does it feel to work little? How does it feel to work big? How do you know how big to make a painting?
AK: I love working large. For me the large paintings are very intimate, they are created with the use of my whole body as I stretch, crouch and climb. The large size fills all of my visual space and I get the sense of physically entering into the space of the work which I find exciting. The smaller work has a very different feel, they are quieter and are looking deeply at just one part of a larger idea. It makes it easier to get a grip on the whole surface which gives room to play more with texture. I often make smaller paintings or drawings to study parts of a larger completed painting.
JM: Most of your work is invented out of your imagination. Can you describe the making of a painting from initial idea to a painting hanging in an exhibition?
AK: There are generally two different ways it happens. A lot of times I will just staple a piece of canvas on the wall and then I will sit and look at it until I feel like I have an idea of what imagery will go on it. Or I might just start painting on it to see what happens. The other way is working from what I consider my internal slide viewer. An image will fall into my head and I make a tiny thumbnail drawing in my sketch book or whatever I have at hand. Later I might find that one of these image ideas will work as a painting. I will start by cutting a piece of canvas to the size I feel the painting should be. The next step also generally happens one of two ways. I either give the canvas a color wash, most often with burnt sienna or I will use all the colors on my palette to make an abstract wild color pattern on the canvas. The color is something I work with and against and not much of it remains once the painting is completed. Then I will very loosely draw in my image idea with a brush and start adding paint while staying in dialogue with the work to learn what it wants and needs. The completed work is often as strange to me as to others who see them. I enjoy the process of getting to know it once it exists without a preconceived notion about what it is supposed to be. What comes out in my work feels like it is beyond my decision, which makes it continuously interesting and fascinating.
JM: Why do your paintings start out with bright colors and often finish in mostly white, black, and shades of grey?
AK: I often start with color both to have something to work against and because I usually end up with a painting in limited color. The color layer beneath the later added paint layers will be visible here and there and gives a little buzz to a surface that might at first appear gray. I thought for a while that I did not like color because it was so difficult for me to work with it, but then I realized I am just very sensitive to it. Too much color is overwhelming for me. This might have to do with growing up in Norway. I grew up in forest areas and most of the year; spring, fall and winter, offered limited color past shades of gray. The mood of that nature and weather is part of me and also becomes part of what I create. Eliminating color to a great extent helps me discover the painting.
JM: What are the difficulties in working from imagination? Why do you do it?
AK: I worked realistically and from photographs for several years out of art school. My main subject has always been figures. First I painted from what I saw around me, then I turned the camera on myself. At the same time my work became more and more expressionistic and I found that paint itself held more interest to me than the imagery I was using. Eventually I left all my reference material behind and started searching for my inner imagery. I saw this as the biggest challenge I could give myself and it was terrifying and incredibly difficult. The absence of limitations paralyzed me and it took more than 6 months before I was able to start making work. The challenge is that there is no way to tell if you are doing it right. I was good at copying and it was easy to see if something was right or wrong. With working out of my own imagination almost everything feels like a risk and it often feels scary. But it is challenging in the best ways, there is new learning at every turn and it is always exciting and surprising.
JM: Can you talk about how drawing, painting, and sculpture work in your world? Why drawing, painting, and sculpture and not writing, photography, video, or any other medium?
AK: It is important to me that the creative process is direct and physical, so my mediums are selected based on this. I love the physicality of painting and drawing, and sculpture is like 3D painting to me. Working in the visual language gives me ways to express, learn and feel things that words cannot express. So much of our learning on how to relate with other humans cannot be taught in words, but through seeing and observing. Art is an extension of this type of learning that unfortunately is given much too little importance in today’s society. It is about making with my hands and body something that is internal in me and bringing it out into the world to be seen.
JM: You grew up in the forest in Norway and for the past 20 years you’ve been living in New York City. Can you talk about how the experience of living here has informed your work?
AK: I have been privileged to get to see so much of the best art in the world by living here. Being able to hold my own work up to these works has certainly pushed me much further than I think I could have gotten anywhere else. There are opportunities to meet curators, gallerists, artists and collectors who all have knowledge to share which is a unique advantage to living here, something that has given me much insight. The art community is one of great inspiration and support at the same time it gives a solid dose of healthy competition.
JM: How would you describe the work you’ve been making through 2015 and how is it different from work you’ve made before?
AK: Through years of painting I see my work change slowly as well as my process. I leave certain ways of working behind and find new ways of using the paint and then sometimes pick old ways back up with new knowledge. I used to add texture to my canvas before working, but then went for flatter straight paint, much because I am too impatient to prepare the surface before starting to paint. I am again attempting to add texture and currently I have been experimenting with adding pieces of dry paint that I scrape off my glass palette to the canvas. This gives a very uneven surface to explore. I am also trying to work with less attachment to my figures and imagery generally which is quite a challenge for me.
JM: What keeps you going in your painting? What motivates you to keep coming in here day after day?
AK: Deep curiosity. It feels meaningful to explore this “self” through the creative process and to compare it to how others have done it and what they found. I can’t think of anything else I would rather spend my life doing.
See more at: www.ankiking.com
Studio photos by Jason Boeckli
Anki interviews John:
Anki King: Up till last year, you worked on a project for many years. What was the inspiration for this project?
John Mitchell: I wanted to design and build my own world and make intaglio prints and paintings from direct observation of it. The working title for this group of work is “Planet Aix”. I started the “Planet Aix” project in early 2004 and worked on it through 2014. The ideas came out of drawings, prints, and paintings that I made between 1993 and 2003.
AK: What type of world are you making? Can you expand a little bit on the inspiration for it?
JM: It’s a 3D model alien world. The sets are made of wood, plaster, foam, vacuum formed plastic, and various other materials. The aliens are puppets. I machine stop-motion animation armatures for each one and then sculpt the alien in oil-based clay over the armature. Next – I make molds and cast them in foam latex and/or silicone rubber. Then I put together scenes, light them, and make paintings of them from direct observation. Basically, they could be described as still life paintings. More importantly, I think of them as being made in the tradition of religious and mythological paintings. But the contemporary collective idea of what life is like beyond our solar system has been shaped more by science and science fiction than old religious and mythological imagery. I love the idea of a low-tech painting made of colored earth – striving to picture what might exist way out there in orbit around any one of the billions of stars we can see when we look up at the night sky.
AK: How did the project evolve and did the idea change while you were working on it?
JM: I never know what any aspect of this world will look like until I design and make it. As each part is created it adds to the whole of what has already been made. The whole project and all of the ideas seem to be in a perpetual state of evolution.
AK: Then last year there was a change in what you were doing. What would you say was the reason for this?
JM: Since 1990 or so, I’ve been drawing almost every day in drawing books. These drawings are typically of scenes from daily life. I fill 5 or 6 books a year and mail the small ones to my grandmother in Southern Illinois and the bigger ones to my mom in Southeast Missouri. I rarely see them after they’re done. The last time I was home in December 2013, I was looking through my mom’s collection of all the books I’ve given her over the past 20 years; literally thousands of drawings. Seeing so many of the daily drawings in one viewing for the first time was revelatory. I realized that the view of the world as represented in those pages is unique and complex and that whatever is being represented is not the subject – the artist is the subject. In those drawings, the thinking is not external to the image. It was an overwhelming and exciting moment but scary too because I had so much already invested in making my own world to paint. I have all of these tools and materials like a metal lathe, a mill press, and a big convection oven for baking foam latex, plus years invested in learning how to make these models by trial and error. I came back to Brooklyn and completed the three Planet Aix paintings that I’d been working on for over a year and then decided to explore new ground.
AK: Can you describe what you are doing now and what are differences in this way of working from how you were working earlier? And what would you say are similarities?
JM: One sunny day in August 2014, I went out and started a painting of the Brooklyn Bridge. Once into on-site cityscape painting, I started seeing potential paintings all over the place. Now I have a growing ambition to make paintings of the world around me; I’m making paintings outside, I’m working on a group of portraits, paintings of the glass block windows in our guest room, and painting from drawings. With “Planet Aix” I need to design and build everything before I start painting. That part of the process is time consuming. Now I’m able to spend a lot more time painting. But ultimately, all of the paintings are made from direct observation.
AK: Why is painting important to you? What is it that makes it your passion?
JM: I don’t know why but I’ve always had a natural sensitivity for drawing and painting. Like having blue eyes or being left handed – it’s an attribute that I was born with. I love paint. I can spend a whole day in the studio just mixing color. There’s so much to learn about paint and color. The possibilities are endless. I often think about how new technology makes old technology obsolete or at best, old technology becomes a kind of novelty. But new painting reinvigorates old painting and the tradition dates back 40,000 years. When you’re standing in front of a painting, you’re in the space that the painter was in relative to the painting when it was made. I often have a strong sense of the physical presence of the painter when I’m looking at a painting. Oil paint is made of various pigments suspended in oil. It doesn’t seem that different than the stuff we’re made of. My life goal is to turn myself into a body of drawings, prints, and paintings.
See more at www.johnmitchellworld.com