Interview by Jay Batlle
“I made the mistake for some time of feeling that commercialism
disqualified serious art, that I had to have an MFA, and that
the motivation somehow had to be pure. Of course this isn't true.”
— GRAEME MITCHELL
Raised in Manitoba and Oregon, Graeme Mitchell is a Los Angeles artist whose work spans video, drawing, painting, sculpture and photography. Mitchell worked for a decade as a portrait photographer in New York before transitioning to personal art. His commercial portraits have graced the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker, W, Interview, Dazed and Confused and Tank. Mitchell’s debut exhibition, Das Ding, opened at Wilding Cran Gallery in downtown LA, showing his work from 2012–2014.
A sixth-generation conceptual artist living in Brooklyn, Jay Batlle’s Epicurean paintings, drawings, performances and sculptures refer to the gourmet as a source of inspiration and social commentary. Batlle’s work explores “the good life”—success, fortune and abundant sensual pleasures—and the gulf that exists between this ideal and reality. Batlle has exhibited internationally, including the Chelsea Museum and Exit Art, New York; the National Museum of Fine Arts, Santiago de Chile; and the Museum of Liverpool.
I’ve always avoided getting too close with my neighbors. It’s an unspoken rule in NYC: keep to yourself but always be companionable. The ones with whom I’ve been able to transcend this iron code are friends for life.
New York is all or nothing / Graeme is my friend for life.
The front doors to our Brooklyn apartments faced each other in the psychedelic purple hallway of the Chocolate Factory. Behind those doors were our respective studios—Graeme’s darkroom and my painting place. Before we knew each other, I always seemed to be going out around the same time that my Canadian neighbor began his daily street photography. Day after day our doors opened simultaneously, and we were facing each other, buttoning our coats. Then one spring day as I was leaving to take my lurcher Seymour for a walk, we started talking, and we haven’t stopped since.
Thereafter, our solitary routines seemed to merge naturally into seeing each other and chatting about what we were seeing. Mainly art. Graeme’s work was the first street photography I’d seen in years which spoke to me. I ended up looking forward to grabbing some cold beers in the store downstairs and shooting the shit with Graeme. Getting home was no problem: we just took the elevator and parted on our respective thresholds, still talking.
Graeme has since relocated to Los Angeles. We caught up recently over a long lunch at the Soho House in West Hollywood.
Jay Batlle: I’m having a Peroni? You?
Graeme Mitchell: Yeah, great, two of those. It’s hot. Nineties in February is bananas. It’s nice up here though! It is rare to have such an elevated view of this city.
JB: Please don’t remind me. Brooklyn has been brutal this winter. Okay, so when did you first start making photographs?
GM: At the age of 11 or 12. My dad was into tech, so there were old cameras around the house that I’d play with. I figure at that age a camera was a cool object, like a boom-box or a sword, but for whatever reason I was serious about using it or performing with it. I’d direct my brothers in these scenes—neon sunglasses, roller skates, the works. It was playing.
JB: When and how did you start making portraits?
GM: Right from that start. It’s what I assumed cameras were for, to photograph people. I didn’t take pictures of anything else for years. After my brothers, I moved on to portraits of friends. I did this, I’d say, throughout high school. It was my way to connect with people, to show affection. The actual photographs didn’t matter. That would come much later. My portraits as work began after moving to NYC and meeting editors who spotted this natural direction.
“It makes me think of how academic the art community is. It sometimes feels like a institutional bureaucracy, everyone eagerly critiquing and policing the ‘conversation.’”
— GRAEME MITCHELL
JB: What motivated you to work mainly in analog and black & white film?
GM: Even as a kid black & white was interesting to me because it made things different. This excited me, and it only grew later in discovering the work I most admired—Friedlander, Evans, R. Adams, Atget, the Bechers—all black & white. I respected that tradition of a seeming visual constraint that made the medium unique.
JB: There is something so tangible about the process and tradition.
GM: Yes, and I still find a possibility of beauty in that tangibility. Yet, the analog part—shooting only film—was mainly a byproduct of the black & white. It was the way to make a photograph with the qualities I sought, namely tonally. Digital was unable to. Black & white film is also extremely inexpensive when you develop it yourself, which was necessary for me at the time. Still, it went beyond this. It was an intense concentration for over a decade. Looking back I think this was because I was self-taught, and analog black & white was how I taught myself the formal aspects of photography that I felt I would need later to do what I wanted with the medium; only once I understood them could I move on. For what it’s worth, I use it all now: digital, analog, color and black & white.
JB: What drove you to move to New York?
GM: I wanted to be a fashion photographer! As context though, I was from small towns, and what I knew of photography was entirely from magazines: Avedon’s portraits in The New Yorker or a Paolo Roversi story in W. All the while, what I really wanted to be was a writer. To me, art was Infinite Jest, but I wasn’t raised with the concept of making a living as an artist; this simply didn’t exist as a possibility. Photography solved this. It was a commercial career and also kind of like writing. I laugh at this now, but it’s how it all began.
JB: Do you see a separation between your commercial work and your recent exhibition?
GM: Yes, I do. That separation exists in the process and the requirements of the job. There are so many compromises in commercial work that it’s often difficult to make it useful beyond the commission’s needs. With an exhibition or art, there are no compromises, only the limits of the resources, which are real.
JB: You gotta pay your dues before you can pay your rent.
GM: Commercial work is made to sell something, and I answer to someone in doing that. Art is shown because I’m interested in something, and its effectiveness is dictated entirely by my satisfaction in actualizing the potential of that interest and, hopefully, by my audience recognizing something in this. For me, these things are at odds with one another because of what they stand for. But this isn’t necessarily a problem.
JB: I definitely see a positive crossover in your practices—they seem to inform each other. A lot of artists’ work comes from their day job.
GM: There’s a long tradition of this in photography. It was an important step for me to understand this and see things as different layers of the work—layers to mine or undermine. I made the mistake for some time of taking the differences personally, feeling that commercialism disqualified serious art, that I had to have an MFA, and that the motivation somehow had to be pure. Of course this isn’t true. It’s about the work and how the work has meaning and effect in its use, and meaning can be very fluid with photography.
JB: I like what Kubrick says: “Film is—or should be—more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
GM: I like that, especially coming from a mind as precise as Kubrick’s. It makes me think of how academic the art community is. It sometimes feels like a institutional bureaucracy, everyone eagerly critiquing and policing the “conversation.” I wonder if maybe we overrate the importance of that intelligence, and if maybe our real intelligence isn’t emotion. So Kubrick is good to bring up, as he is one of the great examples of a “commercial” artist who worked outside of the studio system on his own terms and did something good. He shows there’s no rulebook. Louis Armstrong said of music that there are only two kinds, good and bad. Maybe it’s that simple after all. What I don’t understand is the nearly reactionary responses to this institutionalization that you hear so often in conversations like ours, like, “that was a different generation,” or, “it’s a different market now,” or my favorite, “but that’s photography, and it’s a different conversation.” I disagree with this sensibility. Or I don’t understand it.
“Bad is one thing,
but boring is just… just more stuff.”
— GRAEME MITCHELL
JB: Everything used to be qualified in those terms, but I think that has changed, and the situation is much more polymorphic. So what are you looking at in Los Angeles?
GM: I’m almost embarrassed by how I spend so much of my time at my studio and home here, but I’ve been enjoying these kinds of private spaces that are nicer here than in NYC. I’ve never had a studio until moving here! Or a barbecue.
An American artist (1954–2012) whose work often commented upon class, pop culture and youth rebellion. Mike Kelley has collaborated with artists such as Paul McCartney, Tony Oursler and John Miller.
Los Angeles-based artist Charles Ray is known for sculptures that seamlessly integrate style, material, presence, subject and scale in order to play upon viewers’ perceptual judgements.
A German photographer whose subject focuses upon family portraits and black & white street photography in Düsseldorf and New York. Struth emerged in the 1970s with his simple composition style and attention to central symmetry.
A series of novels published in the early 1950s by Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett. The trilogy includes Malloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Beckett’s novels are regarded as a high-water mark for the literary Modernism movement.
JB: Barbecue and solitude! Sounds like you are working.
GM: Private space is so comfortable here. When I do get out, I look at the people, the communities, the life. It’s a neat city in how it presents isolated vignettes for your consideration. You can watch things unfold from start to finish, and there’s this wonderful largeness of space around the events. There’s also an individuality to people here that is refreshing coming from Brooklyn, which has become, as you know, more and more homogenized. There’s more edge here, more tension, more strange energy about to happen.
JB: Yeah, I feel like now when I go to art shows in Chelsea or the LES—at these hundreds of different “contemporary art” galleries—all the work could be made by the same artist. I think they should drop the “con” and call them “temporary art” galleries. The good thing is when something stands out, it really shines, but this is rare. When I lived in LA, 17 years ago, every show I went to was interesting, even if I didn’t like it.
GM: I saw so much great art in NYC. It’s where I first started to look at and to recognize something important for myself in it. But I went almost solely to the MoMA or the Met, the former because a friend got me a membership, and the latter was “suggested donation.” I went two or three times a week sometimes. I’d go early on weekday mornings when it was quiet, and I’d find a room and sit with one piece I liked for as long as it took me to be with it, and then I’d leave. There must be an indent of my ass in the bench that’s in front of Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis at the MoMA. Unfortunately, there was no bench in front of De Kooning’s Woman, I, which hung in the opposite corner. Those museums were my research libraries, my school. It totally skewed my perspective. When I started to go to galleries, I didn’t think anything was good, and I’d just want to go back to the museums. What was the Mike Kelley quote you told me the other day? “Don’t talk to me about bad art. I’ll just want to go see it.” Bad is one thing, but boring is just… just more stuff. With that, I’ve not been looking at nearly as much art in Los Angeles, and somehow because of this I feel I’m thinking about it more clearly. I have been revisiting Charles Ray and Thomas Struth—two artists I feel I’m ready for right now. I’ve also been re-reading Beckett’s trilogy, and after over ten years and numerous tries, I feel I can finally enter into those books.
JB: In LA you have time to get into things! I’m not sure what the Mike Kelley quote is… but I like what you are saying, so it doesn’t matter. What do you think of the culture of fame, and how does it differ in your opinion of New York versus LA?
GM: I see it as pathological facet to personalities. Some have it worse than others, but most of us seek to be recognized on one level or another. I mean, here we are, speaking for this reason.
An American artist known for his sexually vulgar paintings, the subjects of Fischl’s early work included adolescent sexuality and voyeurism. Fischl primarily worked and resided in New York City before moving to Long Island in 2000.
JB: Eric Fischl said recently in an interview, “Artists are looking for love, but love is complicated… Don’t look at me, look at this thing I made, and you will know the true me.”
GM: That makes me think of the line from the film Birdman, “You always confused adoration for love.” It also makes me think of [the philosopher] Lacan. I was reading late the other night: “All artists are perverts because of their innate fetishization of shiny objects.”
JB: Some of the best collectors I know are artists… and live in LA.
GM: Maybe it is because artists sympathize with art on a unique level: a different understanding of what was at stake in making it. But fame for me is an entirely different thing than love. The interesting aspect of fame is how it’s constructed by—and now essential to—the media and culture industry and my participation in this. The result of this industry and our hunger for endless amounts of hype is a culture that values fame for its own sake and has an idea that fame has meaning in and of itself, which it doesn’t. This is systemic and not specific to New York or LA. It is being accelerated by the sheer volume of “content” peddled in mass media and online. It’s not a conspiracy though, just business, and what we seem to respond to and reinforce en masse socially. We appear to be wired for it.
An American painter who helped pioneer the 1960s art transition from abstract expressionism to neo-expressionism. Guston’s paintings focused upon a cartoon-like rendering of personal objects.
JB: I think secretly why we want to be famous is to receive unconditional love. On another note, it is interesting just how popular “art” has become. Almost everyone I meet in NYC wants to be/is an artist, yet I feel like there is less of a community than when I arrived in NYC in 1998. But like Philip Guston said, “Art is not a team sport.” I don’t feel the love.
French-American painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp’s work is known for its heavy influence on 20th century art and its association with Dadaism. Duchamp often criticized the use of “retinal” art, art meant only for aesthetic pleasure.
GM: I know executives and drug dealers who introduce themselves as artists, which is just weird. I think it comes with a post-Duchampian possibility of art being about selecting not creating, combined with the post-internet belief that getting “likes” for it means you’re good, combined with wide eyes over the amount of money in the market. The nearly comical truth is how unglamorous making work can be, and how hard scraping by can be. But I think we all want to matter, and we’ve been instructed—very ironically in an increasingly depersonalized world—that what matters is you, your desire, your fame, your story. The myth of the artist is one that epitomizes the individual, making them one who matters and has real value. It’s interesting to think of this desire to call oneself an artist as a reaction to the erosion of physical communities that, at one time, possibly served as places we could be meaningful individuals within. Maybe a pedantic generalization, but you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. By the way, I still have an awkward mental beat when asked, “What do you do for work?” Saying “a photographer,” let alone “an artist,” still feels like a scam; like I snuck in, and nobody’s kicked me out yet. So if someone tells me they’re an artist or dream to be, I pass along some of the best advice I ever received: “Do it.”
“[LA] is not romantic in that
old American idealism of spirit and discipline,
up by the bootstraps. Instead, I see this
positivism here, an absolute faith in oneself
to matter against a backdrop of obscurity
by believing it.”
— GRAEME MITCHELL
JB: Well, Duchamp did create this, and if you are “trending” or selling for big bucks, you are validated in this system. It is not an extension of any sort of history or critical thinking: instant acceptance equals success or nothing.
GM: The difficulty here is, as much as even serious artists and cantankerous critics bemoan it, we’re also in a way part of it. Or if we’re not, we feel we need to be to be validated or to eat. So I think it’s more a symptom of our commercialized culture as a whole than anything specific to the art community. But I somehow feel we are complicit or partly responsible by way of accepting it.
JB: Yes, I agree there is no escape, but we aren’t complicit. I feel like the whole landscape around me has changed, and I wonder why young artists want to be in NYC anymore. Or even can be? Art somehow, though, transcends all this. I see this in your work. I find what you are doing to be very interesting.
An American painter and filmmaker, Schnabel became a major figure in the Neo-expressionism movement by the mid-1980s. Schnabel also directed Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was nominated for four Academy Awards.
GM: NYC is, to quote Julian Schnabel, “a motherfucker.” In regards to fame, New York is a special place because it gives you constant reference points to physical (not online) social hierarchies. Fame there is checked, as it relies on being qualified within the epistemologies of complex and diverse social groups. You can be a millionaire-famous-artist at the party, but the even more-rich-more-famous-artist and the billionaire-real-estate-tycoon next to you really don’t care. Because of this, fame isn’t as useful in NYC. It’s not power there, so people don’t invest in it as they do in, say, LA. That is the ethos of NYC, though, to be good instead of famous. It’s a romantic idea and arguably an outdated one now.
JB: So Los Angeles is more real in a way because of its singularity. But less romantic? And definitely less a motherfucker.
A highly prolific German artist (1953-1997), Kippenberger’s career spanned a diverse range of styles and mediums. His work questioned the artist’s role in society, incorporating overt political commentary and criticism of the artistic status quo.
GM: Yes. LA was built on an industry whose commodity is fame. You can be famous for no other reason than that you’re famous. It’s incredibly one-dimensional. As Kippenberger said, and I’m paraphrasing, “There’s only one story here.” Where it becomes interesting is, unlike NYC, there is an ability to socially isolate yourself in LA. It’s not romantic in that old American idealism of spirit and discipline, up by the bootstraps. Instead, I see this positivism here, an absolute faith in oneself to matter against a backdrop of obscurity by believing it. I say this is interesting because, for me, there is an aloneness in this which is more representative of our modern state of being. And I think I’m one lucky motherfucker to have had a chance to live in two such amazing places.