A Smart Message begins with the very title of Christy Mitchell’s latest solo installation at Burlington’s SPACE gallery. “Holding Pattern” is a double meaning – at least – and a meaning is immediately evident in Mitchell’s use of old-fashioned pattern wallpaper. Less obvious is what the installation might contain, both for the artist and for the viewer. The title suggests a code that we are invited to decipher.
Mitchell, 40, has had an annual solo show since 2013 at the gallery she founded a dozen years ago. All the installations were self-referential, but not in the strict sense of presenting an account of his experience. Instead, Mitchell reflects on the previous year and her own passage through it, develops an exhibition concept, and assembles found and handmade objects in support of her vision.
The love of vintage has always influenced Mitchell’s aesthetic; she is in love with artefacts that were used long before she was born. But viewers shouldn’t read these collections as a plea for a “simpler” time. While the presence of analog objects and images dating from mid-century or older implicitly speaks of a set of values, lifestyles and technologies different from those of today, the artist s’ more interested in what we say to ourselves and to others – or not.
“Holding Pattern” offers a kind of visual anthropology which gives – if you look closely enough – evidence of human communication. Mitchell’s written description of the exhibition evokes this artefacts’ power of speech: “If these walls could speak of the things we say and what we hide from the public, what would they tell us?
Plus, the materiality of the artifacts itself contributes to the conversation. “I’m exploring the idea of time travel, in a way,” Mitchell said during a recent visit to the gallery. “Objects kind of have their own story.”
This exploration is universal and, yes, not time bound. In his invocation of the past, Mitchell’s autobiographical pursuits merge with his broader humanistic curiosity.
Like his previous installations, “Holding Pattern” occupies a 17-by-19-foot room and a wide hallway – almost the entire space, minus the maze of small artist studios surrounding the exhibition space. Mitchell enjoys guiding a visitor from the start of the installation, which is marked by a guest registration book on a small table and a curtain that must be opened to enter the hallway.
Conceptually, Mitchell describes the installation as “set in an early 20th-century Victorian-style house,” and she considers each section to represent a room in that house.
“Once you walk in you are in a different place,” she said. Indeed. On one side of the hallway, Mitchell hung colorful images of factories, other workplaces and cars, all decidedly from an earlier era. (The cars, rich in tail fins, represent an American dream that’s not accessible to everyone, Mitchell noted.) The opposite wall is half covered in white paneling and half in floral wallpaper and grooves. Suspended from it is a row of round mirrors, each laser engraved with a single word in Mitchell’s cursive: “thoughtful”, “looking”, “feeling”, “timeless”.
From the start of the exhibition, it’s clear that wallpaper isn’t just for walls; Mitchell made inventive use of the vintage rolls she has collected over the years. At the entrance, the glass of an antique oval frame contains a blue and green botanical motif overlaid with the words “here we are,” again in Mitchell’s cursive, cut from red and yellow paper. Some frames are wrapped in wallpaper. The same goes, meticulously, with a vintage desk phone.
A wall in the main gallery hall contrasts with the ingenuity of these efforts. Near the ground, a strip of wallpaper bulges outward, and from the space strands of other shredded paper spill out. It is as if the wall could no longer contain the secrets it conceals; they are released.
Next to the domed wallpaper strip, two more were randomly applied, peeling off around the edges and revealing a blue painted wall below.
Mitchell called the spilled strands of paper the “leftover of my life.” She framed other scraps of wallpaper behind glass in round frames, like museum specimens.
Given the voice, what stories could these papers, tears, and shreds tell us?
“Art is a sentimental thing for me,” reflected Mitchell. “With concept work in general, it’s more about the story you’re trying to tell than the material.”
Another wall in the room is even more dramatic. Here Mitchell set up shelves to display antique radios, earlier artwork, books, and other artifacts. The “wallpaper” on this wall is actually a botanical patterned projection – the lighting courtesy of Jason Liggett of Burlington-based Liggy Lights and Satellite Arts Productions. The resulting light and shadow add complexity and intrigue to an evocative collection of artifacts.
Mitchell thinks the projection “speaks to the fleetingness of time.”
To borrow an expression that is circulating these days on social networks, the artist has created a “great mood” in this room. “It’s the home office or library,” Mitchell suggested – and that offers a lot to study. The wall with the shelves is sort of a mini retrospective, Mitchell revealed: it contains “one piece from every show I’ve done here – memories of my progress over 10 years.”
One shelf contains an even older piece that Mitchell made in her senior year at Savannah College of Art and Design, where she focused on metalwork and jewelry. Designed like a helmet, the sculpture features letters cut out of metal “slings” – a precursor to his current text-centric work.
Last year, when the pandemic caused the cancellation of exhibitions and events, Mitchell had more time to think about his presentation of “Holding Pattern”. Its title also refers to this unique time of challenges and isolation. “As we are collectively released from the pattern of expectation of the past year,” one reads in his exhibit statement, “a critical eye needs to be formed on what we will take with us and what should be left for. account”.
All of Mitchell’s installations have been, to some extent, on her state of being, so it’s nice to know that she looks kindly on this one. “This series admits the stories from the past that I’ve developed,” she said, “and I’m doing fine.”