Tyler Mitchell, Dreaming in Real Time @Jack Shainman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 photographic works, generally framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the divided main gallery space, two smaller side rooms, and the entry area.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 15 archival pigment prints, 2021, ranging in size from roughly 24×19 to 63×78 inches (or the reverse), in editions of 3+2AP
  • 1 archival pigment print diptych, 2021, sized roughly 30×37 inches (each panel), in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 3-panel wall vinyl, 2021, sized roughly 120×202 inches (each panel)
  • 2 dye sublimation on fabric, 2021, sized 79×58, 80×58 inches, in editions of 3+2AP
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 2021, sized 54×66 inches, in an edition of 3+2AP

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tyler Mitchell has had an unexpectedly inverted early artistic career. Instead of methodically building up from group shows to solo shows at galleries and eventually on to museum shows like most emerging photographers, he skipped all the preliminaries and went right to solo museum exhibits at Foam in Amsterdam and the ICP in New York (reviewed here). He has since worked back and established a gallery representation relationship with Jack Shainman, and two separate solo shows on view now are essentially catching us up on Mitchell’s progress. One show (at the 24th street space) reprises and expands on the work shown at the ICP (and in a similarly named Prestel monograph), while this show (at the 20th street space) introduces work made in the past year.

While much of Mitchell’s work leverages a stylishly clean aesthetic he has developed for fashion and commercial shoots, it is the visual mood of his personal work that has deservedly gained so much attention. Mitchell’s images are filled with a dream-like positivity that we have seldom seen applied to contemporary Black subjects. In both his photographs and videos, he has staged young Black people in moments of child-like play, and settled them into scenes of idyllic relaxation, comfort, and peace. It is the very fact that we are so used to seeing white subjects in these kinds of setups, and have culturally built less positive stereotypes around the lives and aspirations of young Black people, that makes Mitchell’s efforts so transformative and seemingly innovative – we should have long ago seen countless Black subjects infused with this kind of glorious, youthful freedom, and yet for the most part we haven’t, which says volumes about both the history of photography as a medium and the cultural forces at work in America.

Several of the larger compositions on view in this show stage gatherings of people in settings of leisure, where the group is both together and broken into smaller clusters and pairs. In “Riverside Scene”, five separate sets of activities are taking place – young men heading for a swim in the river, elders sitting in lawn chairs on the bank, another multi-generational group of women sitting on a spread blanket, a woman painting, and in the distance, a mother and infant enjoying a view of the water. The light is warm, the grasses are high, and the summer scene feels relaxed, inclusive, and family-oriented.

The same overall mood permeates the tableaux-style arrangement of extended families at a picnic on a football field, the tiered combinations of people at a stone amphitheater, and the energetic groups seen playing on sand dunes. Families and friends coalesce and disperse, often with mannered sense of compositional separation and proportion, taking easy going time to throw a ball, carry a child on shoulders or have one sit in a lap, or chat with a sister or friend. These pastimes then get even more fanciful and dream-like (especially on the sand), with people playing violins (wearing formal clothes), groups playing tag, families taking photographs, people sitting with dogs, and children pulling on the impossibly long arms of a white shirt. Mitchell’s splashes of the surreal feel a bit like magic, the images reinforcing the idea of these places as refuges, where the bonds and connections that tie the people together and the safety of the protected atmosphere allow them to playfully relax and truly enjoy themselves.

Other images gradually move in closer, starting with smaller groups hanging out together, and moving inward to individual children being swung by parents, jumping into the water, or lounging tenderly in the warm afternoon sun, each image reinforcing a sense of trust and connection. “Nap” has a similarly comfortable and endearing mood, with two pairs of intertwined feet (one in black loafers, the other in saddle shoes) intimately nestled together. Still other images offer us symbols of the joys of childhood, including a dragonfly perched on a rope, a kite flying high in the sky, and two unhappy young boys with tangled balloon strings. Two additional works have been printed on fabric (like the main installation in the ICP exhibit), the overlapped patterns of red gingham well matched to the gentle fluttering effect created by any movement of the air in the gallery. In general, these images are universally lyrical, but seem to have an extra layer of bite when we remember how infrequently such scenes have shown us the lives of Black people.

Mitchell gets more overtly provocative with two images of apparent leisure that have been divided by lines drawn on the grass and concrete. In “Georgia Hillside (Redlining)”, a young woman lounging in the grass, a couple making a photograph, a young boy flying a kite, another couple with a picnic, and a trio of people dressed in all white enjoy the park-like atmosphere, but red lines painted on the grass divide the hillside into marked parcels. Mitchell creates the same effect in “Chalk”, the space where three guys hanging out in lounge chairs with a cooler is seemingly chopped into pieces. A third work (a diptych made up of two portraits) draws similar lines across the bare back and arms of a young man resting in the grass, making the scarring intrusion even more personal. All of these images reference the history of racial redlining (in real estate and other governmental services) and the arbitrary divisions and injustices it created, the lines made all the more incongruous here by the casual vibe of summertime fun.

Conceptually, Mitchell has anchored himself in a smart place. He can now continue to expressively expand his visual explorations of freedom, comfort, and play, as seen through Black eyes, while also pushing harder on the undercurrents (both historical and contemporary) that have previously prevented or undermined that happiness – he can both engage with the universal, and more provocatively consider its impediments. As seen here, Mitchell is a promising photographer who is just getting started, and his establishment of a strong gallery presence will only accelerate that growing momentum.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $9500 and $30000, based on size. Mitchell’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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