Tyler Mitchell, I Can Make You Feel Good @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 photographs and 2 video installations, hung against white walls in a series of rooms on the second floor of the museum.

The exhibition includes:

  • 1 3-channel video installation, 2019, 29 minutes 15 seconds
  • 7 inkjet prints (framed in white), 2017, 2018, 2019
  • 1 video installation, 2019, 12 minutes 45 seconds, with picket fence, artificial grass, and black cushions
  • 1 installation of 35 dye sublimation prints on fabric, with laundry line, clothespins, towels, washcloths, socks, linens, 2020

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: At its core, much of fashion photography (but not all) is rooted in optimistic aspiration. Whether delivered directly or indirectly, its message can often be boiled down to a straightforward visual assertion: if you buy this/these (dress, shirt, shoes, jeans, handbag, jewelry, perfume etc.), you will look and feel as (beautiful, confident, sexy, cool, young, contented, relaxed, etc.) as the good looking people pictured here. Even if the world seen in the pictures is obviously a fantasy, we can still imagine a version of ourselves there, or can reframe our own identities as being included in that special place.

Tyler Mitchell’s commissioned and personal work examines these thoroughly ingrained fashion dynamics and then asks a very simple question: what if young black people were consistently seen in the same positive ways as white people? Of course, over the past few decades, a number of famous black fashion models and celebrities have graced the covers and pages of the glossy magazines, but the looks, identities, and aspirations embedded in those pictures largely conformed to the tastes, opportunities, lifestyles, and if we are honest, prejudices of white readers. Mitchell’s works reimagine a world where young black people are free to be expressive and sensual, where their beauty (both male and female) is celebrated within its own context, and the visual stereotypes, discriminations, and traumas of the past (and present) are largely eliminated. If his images feel like whimsical fantasy, it is because our culture has been so thoroughly told that this isn’t what young black people should (or do) look like.

Mitchell’s show opens with a three-channel video installation that is at once lyrical and quietly dissonant. In it, a group of attractive African-American twenty-somethings lounge on a red gingham picnic blanket and red pillows, their bodies lazily intertwined as they doze in the warm summer sun. In the other two views, a man and woman silently sit against a sweep of blue drapery, the camera getting in close to the gestures and intimate hollows of hands, necks, faces, and skin. Visually, the images have a gentle sumptuousness, the beauty of the people cocooned in a mood of relaxed introspection. The contrast comes in the voiceover, where individuals tell stories of everyday discrimination and racism; one woman recounts a childhood trip to the hair salon where she was refused a cut because her hair was too frizzy. These incidents have left lasting emotional scars, where initial confusion has turned into lingering frustration and anger. With these traumatic narratives playing over the luxuriating imagery, Mitchell makes the exterior/interior imbalance poignantly clear, each beautiful black body wrestling with its own injustices.

The photographs in the next room continue Mitchell’s exploration of these kinds of tensions, where he mixes fashion glamour with poses that subtly evoke repression. While the models are always beautiful (both the men and the women) and the settings seem benign, the way the bodies are held and grouped recalls hands behind the back to be handcuffed, being grabbed (and held) from behind, men standing in a lineup (some with bent heads), and ominous threatening shadows. The most politicized of these setups places a young family with two baby girls under dark encroaching skies and a tattered American flag, the symbolism effectively combining protective and threatening elements.

Mitchell returns to lyricism in his video Idyllic Space, the screen placed on the ceiling and visitors encouraged to sprawl on beanbags on the floor, surrounded by fake grass, a white picket fence, and a soothing soundtrack. The video progresses through a series of child-like scenes (some filmed from underneath), where young men play tag, ride tricycles, eat ice cream, jump into swimming pools, and playfully lie on their backs throwing gummy bears into each others’ mouths. Each moment is like a glorious return to childhood, although perhaps not a childhood normally associated with black boys, and this is where Mitchell’s work turns melancholy. These scenes are filled with genuine joy and laughter, where welcoming smiles, broadly outstretched arms, and the warmth of friendship fill the air, and yet, this dreamlike positivity (which white kids often take for granted) is at odds with the stereotype; Mitchell’s video experience aims to repair that imbalance, and it delivers a memorably moving slice of celebration tinged with an inversion of absence and regret.

The vast majority of photographs on view in this show are hung in a long hallway, each image printed on fabric and hung on a clothesline (intermingled with other laundry) that zig zags across the narrow span between the walls. As an installation technique, it is an inspired choice, for several reasons. Not only does it break up the usual around the walls circular flow, forcing the viewer to dip and bend through the hanging images, it also highlights a sense of softness that once again cuts against harder beliefs. Mitchell’s images lean more heavily toward the motifs of fashion here, but he seems to constantly be pushing on established assumptions. Many of his men seem entirely comfortable with their femininity or a fluidity to their gender, the floral fabrics and gossamer thin sheets adding to the sense of relaxed looseness. Other images play with drapery, investigate layers of shadows, and single out the textures found in the fashions, all winding back into the physicality of the installation. Mitchell also embraces the playfulness found in the nearby video, with images of kite flying, rose licking, and squirt gun shooting, even if that gunplay brings with it another round of darker associations. Seen as one integrated photographic experience, rather than as discrete images, the clothesline of imagery feels fresh and innovative, the billowingly poetic movement of the fabrics enveloping visitors in an embrace of reclaimed optimism.

For a young artist who became the first black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue in 2018, this jump to a museum solo in New York, without essentially any solo gallery shows in between, must feel like a heady turn of events, but as seen in this exhibit, Mitchell has put together a compelling case for his growing artistic momentum. What he’s done is begun to find a voice that revels in black positivity without becoming airbrushed or cloying, and celebrates freedoms while not losing sight of parallel injustices. In effect, he’s exploring (or defining) some artistic white space that others have overlooked, and as a result, his efforts have a promising crackle that points the way to something new.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Tyler Mitchell does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, so interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar.)

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Read more about: Tyler Mitchell, International Center of Photography

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