In the Wilderness

With two concurrent shows that span the last 25 years of his work on view in Seattle, Jeffry Mitchell considers work that needs no explanation.


In 1989, Matthew Kangas curated a show at Bumbershoot about abstraction and asked me to take part. I made this big latex piece and, of course, because it was made out of latex, it decomposed. I did a whole body of work that was latex and paper back then, but most of it was destroyed.

I really wanted people to see some of that work. I had wanted to include a recreation of that piece in my show at the Henry, which is a 25-year retrospective. But it was too big—it’s 12 feet high and 15 feet long—so we decided not to use it. Then the Frye asked me to take part in its group show Moment Magnitude. They wanted work of a certain scale, so I thought I should recreate the piece for that show.

Recreating that work reminded me of the pleasure of it, of what a cool material latex is. I’ve enjoyed the sense of freedom of the project and the expansiveness of the scale and the ambition of it.

The most recent piece of mine in the Frye show is called “Not Waving, But Drowning.” It’s ceramic and it really embodies what is interesting to me at this moment.

I would say that right now I don’t know what I’m doing. That seems like a good place to be, in the wilderness. I used to feel afraid of that wilderness, but now it feels somewhat familiar. It feels okay to me. I don’t feel any compunction to explain my work. I feel happy because I’m able to make a lot of work now and not fret about explaining it or knowing where I’m at.

I felt pressure in the past to make my work topical, although I don’t know if it was topical per se. I don’t think that anymore. Time has taught me to look at my work this way—I’m 54 now.

Right now I’m inspired by a lot of old work. Old ceramics, folk art, decorative arts. Also, I was just at the Field Museum in Chicago. It’s a natural history museum and they have a display of Northwest Coast Native American work. It totally blew my mind. It’s the kind of work that is mythical but has no need for explanation. AS TOLD TO MARK BAUMGARTEN

Jeffry Mitchell’s work is on view as part of the Frye Art Museum’s exhibition, Mw [Moment Magnitude], through Jan. 20, and in the solo exhibition Like a Valentine at the Henry Art Museum through Jan. 27.

Photo by Stuart Westmorland