Larry Mitchell and the Disappearing World

Larry Mitchell, Beacon Island--Abrolhos. Oil on canvas, 1 meter x 3 meters, 2010., image courtesy of the artist.

Larry Mitchell, Beacon Island–Abrolhos. Oil on canvas, 1 meter x 3 meters, 2010., image courtesy of the artist.

Perth, a city of 1.5 million people and capital of Western Australia, is the most remote major city in the world. South of the city is the town of Fremantle, an ocean port that hosts a number of noted artists, the painter Larry Mitchell among them. A petite man who favors sun-bleached jeans, t-shirts, and no shoes, Mitchell’s studio is in a converted garage that opens onto his backyard. Most often he paints in open air under a tarp, courtesy of Perth’s moderate climate.

Mitchell worked in London in various contemporary art practices, including abstraction, but fifteen years ago started to paint pictures of the islands off the shores of Australia and up through the biogeographic region of the Central Indio-Pacific. Its seas and straits connect the Indian and Pacific oceans, encompass the South China sea down to northern Australia, New Guinear over to Vanuatu, and contain the greatest diversity of corals and mangroves in the world. Mitchell has sailed as far abroad as Patagonia and the sub-Antarctic islands, but these warmer climes are where he keeps his feet planted on the deck of a boat most of the time.

I visited with Mitchell at his house and studio in early October in preparation for writing about his desert paintings based on trips into the Pilbara region that he, Barry Lopez, and others had taken together last year–and I’ll write more about those soon–but I first wanted to describe his ocean work, as it is the basis for an archive collection that we’re bringing to the CA+E perhaps as early as next year.

Mitchell doesn’t just sail around the islands, but has formed longlasting friendships with their inhabitants, and a deep attachment to their independent lives and family-based fishing businesses. He saw how the twin pressures of economic globilization and global warming were eroding both the local societies and shorelines of the islands, and began to paint them, mostly in panoramas made from a vantage point slightly offshore. Mitchell’s depictions of ocean water are an astonishment. “There’s an underlying geometry to water. It’s infinitely complex, and a digital camera can’t capture it,” he told me last year. From fifteen feet away it looks like you could dive into the paintings. He joked, ““I’m a photographer; I just work really slow.” But once you’re within five feet of the canvas, you realize just how abstract is the brushwork. As he puts the lessons he earned in London, ”I learned a lot about paint by pushing it around to no end.”

Mitchell’s work, like that of the 19th-century landscape painters traveling in South America, Africa, and Asia, comprise a baseline visual record of a fragile environment in steep transition. The islands are literally disappearing before our eyes. The paintings are beautiful and tragic at the same time, and Larry Mitchell’s archives as poignant a set of documents made by an artist as can be.

Larry Mitchell, Deserted Island, New Guinea. Oil on canvas, 1 meter x 3 meters, 2010, image courtesy of the artist.

Larry Mitchell, Deserted Island, New Guinea. Oil on canvas, 1 meter x 3 meters, 2010, image courtesy of the artist.

Dr.Byron Vreeland Shows Off His Lamp

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

Dr. Byron Vreeland shows one of his lamps to Museum staff. Photo by Bill Fox.

On a rainy morning in early October several of us drove up a narrow Los Angeles street so steep it was practically a waterfall. We were venturing deep into one of the storied canyons of the Hollywood Hills to meet Byron Vreeland, a notable collector of Tiffany-era glass work who is lending us several lamps for an exhibition in early 2012. At the end of the street was his house, one of the most sculpted works of architecture I’ve ever seen. As a young man Vreeland worked in the shops of a major movie studio for twelve years, then went on to become a dentist. How all that comes together in his house is the result of a decades-long fascination with the flowing lines of Art Noveau.

Forty years ago Vreeland began converting what was originally a rather plain 800-square-foot house into an architectural fantasy that he admits “even Gaudi would find overdone.” Combining his carpentry skills with plastering techniques learned as a dentist, he transformed a wooden post in the house into a slender and intricate white tree trunk. Stretching out from its base and running on the floor into the kitchen was a tile mosaic of the same tree blooming in full color. It was a witty reversal of shape and shadow, nature and culture, the outside brought in, and typical of a house where every wall and ceiling has been reshaped into spirals, curling branches, shells, and other curvilinear forms.

A few window frames, door jambs, and bookshelves have straight lines, but Vreeland has moulded almost everything other structural element of the house into curves, which he finds not simply more pleasing to the eye, but more conducive to a healthy life. The more than two dozen richly colored stained glass shades of the antique lamps cast a warm ambience, even on a stormy morning. A bulldozer parked below the house attested to the frequency of mudslides there, but the house has weathered earthquakes and being buried to the rooftop in mud without so much as a crack, a testament to his construction skills.

Working with collectors to prepare for an exhibition is often tedious–selecting, photographing, and measuring the objects to be included, writing down their history and provenance, then designing shipping containers and methods. It’s painstaking work for the curatorial staff–but the house was so full of surprises that the morning’s work was done before we knew it. Our only regret was that we couldn’t bring the house into the museum, as well as the lamps.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.

The Duffner & Kimberly Company, Lamp with Wisteria Motif, Early 20th century. Collection of Dr. Byron Vreeland. Photo courtesy Christopher Martin.