Plenty of artists, knowing that mystery sells, make an effort to be enigmatic.
Think back to actor Joaquin Phoenix's flighty and evasive appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman" in 2008. Or to the more recent -- and maybe more effective -- approach of the ever-cagey Christian Bale, who deigns to allow interviews only if they are published in question-and-answer form.
In the visual arts world, these pretenders to inscrutability are rarely forthcoming in interviews, reveal little about themselves in artist statements and carry on a general air of aloofness. This approach can have one of two effects: They can make their work more alluring, like Bale arguably has; or completely embarrass themselves, like Phoenix.
The former is most definitely the case with David Mitchell, whose installation of sculpture and photographs in the Castellani Art Museum as part of Beyond/In Western New York raises the hair on the back of your neck. While most Beyond/In artists have lengthy artist statements and essays to help us get a grip on their work, Mitchell simply sent the following statement, which is included on the exhibition's website (www.beyondinwny.org):
"That's correct. No information. Or, you can make up whatever you want. I would prefer, though, outright lies, but anything is fine."
Mitchell's installation, like some of the most compelling segments of the regionwide show, is based on his own self-invented mythology. Viewers should enter the work by reading Mitchell's tragic fairy tale (posted on the wall) about a young boy who was abducted by wolves, raised by them and eventually (and unsuccessfully) returned to society: "Every night he repaired to the neighboring woods, and never failed to take his part of the carrion he picked up on his way. He generally walked upright, but took his food on all fours in the company of a dog with which he formed a great intimacy. He was never seen to laugh."
Having read this odd fairy tale, we turn our attention to the exhibition's chilling centerpiece, a sculpture of a small girl and a coyote engaged in a deeply unsettling battle that's really better seen than described.
On the wall, as if in dialogue with the strange sculpture, are a series of fantastical photographs meant to prompt viewers to reflect on what they might mean in the context of the fairy tale we've read and the show's sculptural centerpiece.
Mitchell's clever, digitally altered photographs lend themselves incredibly easily to the imaginations of those who encounter them, providing a series of strange scenarios that could have arisen in any number of ways.
One photograph, "Boys Havoc," features four boys on a suburban street wearing strange masks, striking frightening poses and accompanied by a coyote, a fox, a cat and a rabbit. Behind them, a house has burst into flames and smoke is pouring out of its upper windows. Your mind flips through the possibilities: Did the boys set the house on fire? Are the animals in cahoots with this terrifying gang of young arsonists? Where the heck are their parents?
It seems clear Mitchell isn't about to tell us. But his work, unlike some of the more complex conceptual pieces in the show, doesn't need scads of background material to be understood and appreciated. Mitchell, in this alternately disturbing and funny body of work, gives us everything we need.
-- Colin Dabkowski