DETROIT — Nancy Mitchnick’s representations of places — whether they refer to actual locations or states of mind — ricochet out into the real world, conveying a sense of how a place looks based on how it feels. In Mitchnick’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Uncalibrated, she seems to pick up where Charles Burchfield left off. Her oil paintings of landscapes and post-industrial Detroit capture something akin to what his watercolors of weathered Victorian buildings in industrial Buffalo articulated about the romanticization of places left behind by another mutation of the American Dream.
Mitchnick was a member of Detroit’s Cass Corridor art scene until she left for New York in 1973. Nevertheless, remains fluent in that “great epic poetry of Midwestern American life” that Burchfield said he sought capture, with that same musicality and those same subtler elements of Fauvism — the ballet slipper-pink shadows on the sides of bricks, the canary yellow wall of a neighboring building shining through a window into a white room. Uncalibrated also touches on Mitchnick’s other series, including a few portraits and still lifes, though the paintings of places are the main attraction.
Mitchnick’s expressionistic renderings of countryside landscapes still feel modern within the genre, like “Lown’s Orchard” (1986), a diptych painting installed in a corner. It consists of two asymmetrical canvases that are both 72 inches tall, but one is only 27 inches wide, while the other spans 76 inches. Urban scenes like “Sparling Street” (2009) and “13797” (2009) feature Detroit homes, but have that same natural magnetism of classical landscapes. They do not look like realist depictions of an environment, but read more intuitively — they look how these environments must feel. Mitchnick’s paintings of Detroit favor vivacity and ardor through color and brushwork. Compared to the tired and contrived hyperrealisitic images of desolation and despair we’ve grown so accustomed to, these paintings of Detroit feel more real.
The works’ emotional tenor come through in each image’s many layers; the paintings within paintings, the obsessive repetitions. “Quotation Painting” (1997), for instance, looks like two posters of different kinds of coral. These posters reappear in “White Front” (2016), surrounding the front door of a white house, while animals — including an owl, tortoise, and snakes — pose all around. “Mimi and Nancy from Another Planet” (2014) references the famous garden fresco scenes from the Pompeiian House of the Golden Bracelet, which survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Over Mitchnick’s painted statue head, words float on the side of a building; they read: “Mom I’m really sorry I was so very unaware and self-centered.” If you look closely, the bright pink paint on the building’s exterior mostly conceals letters that read: “couldn’t help it.” Mitchnick’s reference to the Pompeiian fresco imparts some of its antiquity to the image, as if implying that the relationship her painting portrays could outlive a volcano’s apocalyptic eruption.
Mitchnick initially wanted to be a performing artist who wrote music and did modern dance, only painting backgrounds as set designs for the shows. “I never finished learning to paint,” she said in a video interview last year, “so I’m still painting.” Knowing this, the works’ musicality is undeniable.
Nancy Mitchnick’s Uncalibrated continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) through July 31.