The Blushing Forest: An Interview with Jacob Mitchell

Jacob Mitchell,  Sandia Signals I , archival pigment print, 32 x 48 inches

Jacob Mitchell, Sandia Signals I, archival pigment print, 32 x 48 inches

by Scott Gleeson

In Western cultures, the wilderness has historically been constructed as a liminal site occupying the borderland between an array of culturally defined binaries: reason and irrationality, visible human existence and the unseen spirit realm, the sacred and the profane, urban and rural. The art of Jacob Mitchell examines the liminal space of the wilderness as a portal to the subconscious world of dreams and memories. His hallucinatory landscape photographs subvert the ostensible documentary value of lens-based images, consciously embracing the medium's potential for digital manipulation through commercially available softwares like Photoshop. Inspired by his study of psychology and 20th century Surrealism, Mitchell seeks to create immersive visual imagery onto which viewers may project their own fantasies and narratives. His strategy of openness to the subjectivity of the viewer constitutes a turn from Surrealism's interest in expressing the dreams and subjectivity of the artist's unconscious mind. Thus, Mitchell's practice must also be considered within discourses of cinema, surveillance, and narrative photography from which the artist draws methods and visual tropes. Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist his inspirations, training, and current projects.

Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

I remember the first time I saw Gregory Crewdson’s “Beneath the Roses” series my freshman year of high school. My photography instructor included a few of the pieces in a presentation he made the first week of class. Those photographs blew me away, it was the first time I fully realized photography was more than documentary, more than representational. It was cinematic, it was emotional, and it was strange and unknown. I was seeing everyday things constructed and lit in such a way they began to take on new meaning, new life. I loved movies, and films tap into our unconscious, informing our conscious mind through visual cues and sounds, etc. Crewdson was using a single frame of narrative imagery; his works resembled cinematic stills and dream imagery. So I took that feeling those photographs gave me and I implemented it in my own work. I want to redefine the world through my images. Make it new, strange, and uncanny. I definitely think that first impression had a huge impact on the way I make photographs and the way I see things in camera.

What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?

The first work of art I have memory of was Mark Rothko’s black paintings at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I believe we were on a field trip in elementary school. At the time, I had no idea what I was looking at. Growing up I went to church, I knew what a chapel was. Rothko Chapel is very different. It’s heavy. The structure and Rothko paintings have gravity to them. Every time I visit I can’t seem to look away from any of them for very long. It’s different than a museum. I have since learned the significance of those pieces and the space itself. But as a kid, dwarfed by those canvases surrounded on eight sides, even then it was a fascination with something unknown, a need to understand what is in that blackness. Those paintings sit with you forever, and I can only hope to give my own work as powerful a presence.

How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I started taking photography courses in high school. I didn’t begin taking myself seriously as a photographer until I was in community college and my photography professor, Troy Huechtker, encouraged me to pursue a BFA at a state university. So my artist training started at the University level with the art core classes. The best thing about those early courses is every art major has to take them. So from the beginning you are collaborating and working next to people from all visual art and design backgrounds and everyone is at differing skill levels. Pavel Romaniko was my first professor in the photography program at UNT and he provided some of the best projects I worked on in my undergrad career. In particular, his Topics course on the moving image really broke me out of the norm of working with still images and working on my own.

Jacob Mitchell, Synthesis, digital video with found sounds, 1:03

I became very interested in how color, visuals and sound could work together in moving images. I created a video piece called “Synthesis” that is a synthesis of the dream state, animating still images of smoke and using found sounds. I wanted to find a way to envelop the audience, use multiple senses, sight, sound, and touch. That semester I was the recipient of the Cora Stafford Visual Arts Scholarship Award for some of my work in the photography program. Paho Mann and Dornith Doherty taught each of my studio photography courses, respectively. Their open classrooms and group critiques were instrumental in my continued education and understanding of contemporary photography as well as developing my own practice. That approach to working, getting outside of the box, working with other people, it’s one of the highlights of my time at UNT. Cross pollination and interdisciplinary approaches to art and specifically image making is what I love and what I strive to do, and that all stems from my years at UNT.

While in undergrad I was hired as a production assistant and web developer for the X-REZ Lab at UNT run by Dr. Ruth West. This was the first time I learned about the marriage of art and science, the importance of research, project development, coding, and many other skills centered on technology, art, and science. You can’t help but grow in an environment like that. There was always new things being experimented with, tinkering with Arduino boards and micro controllers, 3D printing, and VR research. There was a really nice mix of psychology students and art students working in the lab during my time due to the research that was going on. My focus on psychology really shifted in the lab. Finding new ways to implement concepts and ideas of psychology in visual art through technology. Outside of my time at UNT, professors Paho Mann and Dornith Doherty have continued to mentor and guide me in my practice. They are extremely generous with their time and always offer helpful feedback and criticism. The continued support from faculty has helped foster a community of support among students that continues well past graduation, and I don’t think I would be working as hard as I am if it were not for my creative community.

What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

While studying photography, I also studied psychology. The expanse of the human mind, the subconscious, and dreams in the context of psychoanalysis intrigued me the most. Theories of the unconscious and subconscious influence on the conscious mind, the idea of something repressed manifesting while your conscious mind is in a sleep state, began to take shape in my photography and evolve over time. Surrealists traditionally create images as an expression of the unconscious; I am creating an experience similar to the unconscious mind, a bridge between the conscious and unconscious. Photography and the history associated with it as a documentary object, is why I work in this medium. Photographs are supposed to be of something real, something tangible. I use that and create alternate realities, by manipulating a moment in this reality. Historically, the forest was seen as the unknown and mysterious - a place of fear for many people, reserved for witches and other terrible things. For others it was mysterious and exciting, a chance to discover something new. To enter the forest and reemerge on the other side, was to be changed or transformed in some way. How do I make the landscape mysterious again? I manipulate it, tweak it, just enough that it warrants a second look. The enantiomorphic landscape and its visual connection to psychological tests of the unconscious through ink blots prompts a direct response in the audiences’ unconscious. Artists Man Ray, Maurice Tabbard, André Kertész, and other surrealists using photography were creating images as direct representations of their unconscious or dream states, employing the uncanny and dream like visuals. Subverting the documentary nature of the photograph through analog manipulation of real and tangible things, people, and places. Surrealists want to tap into the potential of the unconscious through their images. My works reexamine these ideas in a new context. They are surrealistic in nature - through heavy digital manipulation, natural spaces transform into projections of dream like experiences. I want syntax in images that tap into the unconscious of the viewer, broaden the conscious mind, challenge and inspire the audience to think critically about their own self-awareness.

Jacob Mitchell,  Night Moves , archival pigment, print, 36 x 48 inches

Jacob Mitchell, Night Moves, archival pigment, print, 36 x 48 inches

How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

I start by finding a large piece of land that has easy public access, usually a forest, small body of water, or a park. I spend a few hours, sometimes an entire day walking or hiking around and it’s about 50% meditation 50% photography. While my work is made for the purpose of creating an experience of a dream, my initial photographs are made by free association and my own unconscious. I find myself making reactionary images, drawn to visuals I see as physical representations of the mysteries of the mind. Once the raw images are captured I will sit on them for a period of time. I find I get the best results if I let myself and the images breathe. Rosy retrospection is having a more positive view of an event in the past after some time has passed. Putting some sleep in between the initial capture and the edit is intentional as it gives me a chance to look at the raw images with fresh eyes and new unconscious experiences to draw from. The use of the color pink or rose tint is an aesthetic choice based on an optimistic view of the past or memory. It also creates an element of the uncanny due to its contrast to the typical earthy pallet of a landscape. Through the use of false color and digital manipulation of the natural world, I create landscapes that straddle the line of natural and unnatural, logical and illogical. The physical prints are extremely important since I work solely in a digital format; the object grounds it in our space. Scale is very important too; I work mostly in medium to large scale, the larger the piece the more enveloped the viewer becomes.

Questions of spectatorship and participation in art history and theory have insured that the ‘viewer’ or 'audience’ have become increasingly visible in contemporary art discourses. How does your practice respond or contribute to these conversations?

 My practice is almost entirely about getting the audience to question reality and its constructs - what may be real, and what could possibly be just beyond their reach. Involving the audience this way I feel contributes to the spectatorship and participation of the viewers. In getting them to ask those questions, it’s broadening the conscious mind and the understanding of our world and photography’s place in it. Each piece and each series is meant to inform the next, building a larger context for the audience to place themselves in.

Dogs or cats? Beach or mountains? Urban or rural? Salt or no salt (it’s a margarita thing)?

Dogs and cats! I have both and they help my work as well. Louie (the dog) comes hiking with me when I make photographs and often leads me to some incredible places. And of course my black cat Varjak gives me the inspiration for the mysterious and unknown elements I am looking for in those photographs. I like my beaches near mountains. I shoot in mostly rural areas but I do love urban environments as well, the older the city the better. Salt every time.

Jacob Mitchell,  Blush I , archival pigment print, 24 x 36 inches

Jacob Mitchell, Blush I, archival pigment print, 24 x 36 inches

What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music in the studio?

I listen to most music. I have a soft spot for all things punk and hardcore, but listen to a wide variety of genres and artists. I do listen to a lot of Radiohead and Joy Division. Some of my favorite bands right now, Show Me The Body, Drug Church, Prawn, Somos, and Basement.

Tell us about your current body of work?

My current body of work has been a lot fun to make. Every part of it has yielded some really cool results and sparked new ideas. I like things visually similar to each other, but I also like when there is some contrast between the photographs. The most recent additions have been from trips outside of Texas. “Altered Scapes” was shot in New Mexico and I have a new project that just went up on my website, “Desierto de los Leones”, that was shot outside of Mexico City.

What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why?

The “Blush” series was my first completed series outside of my undergraduate years at UNT. Those photographs are similar to what I was experimenting with in school. All the work I had created before “Blush” was created by me but for the purpose of critique in class or some sort of academic objective whatever you want to call it. “Blush” was mine, entirely, produced as an independent series without instruction. Specifically, the piece titled “Night Moves” which least resembles any of my prior photographs. It reminded me of infra red photography, or the capture of wavelengths invisible to the human eye. The concept of visually capturing something that is invisible to the naked eye is what I am doing in theory. 

Talk about a recent exhibition of your art. What pieces did you show and how do they relate to other works in your portfolio?

In July 2016 I had two pieces from “Blush” in the OP Collective Juried Exhibition in Denton. “Night Moves” was displayed as well as “Entrance I”. I think those two pieces are great examples of my visual evolution. “Entrance I” is very similar to some pieces I had in my BFA show at UNT and “Night Moves” being such a pivotal piece in my current practice, the two of them side by side was really cool for me to see. I am continuing to apply to shows for 2017 so fingers crossed I will have some new work out in the world for everyone to see!