Larry Mitchell and the Disappearing World
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.