[Art Papers January / February 2009]
Curtis Mitchell at The Sculpture Center, Cleveland

   Our shadows, our identities, wane across the bright wall of contemporary
culture – the “spectacle” of late capitalist production. But at any time and
forever we dance between fires, singed by seduction and death, like extras
stumbling through the psycho-geography of a big-budget film set.
   Over the past several years, Curtis Mitchell has been setting up visual
dialogues in “Personas,” an ongoing series of video installations. In these
works, looped video clips from canonical films like “A Clockwork Orange” and
“The Godfather” converse with large C-prints laid on gallery floors. At times,
an actual object relating to the onscreen images completes Mitchell’s circuits
of identification, stirring the three-dimensional into an image, crystallizing
traces of the self found in shards of well-known images as they break against
the discontinuities of lived time and space.
   Here, in the Sculpture Center’s large self-enclosed gallery, Mitchell
presents further variations on these themes with some striking changes
[November 7 – December 20, 2008]. Projectors placed on the floor in
opposite corners fill the room’s east and west walls with complementary,
archetypal scenes culled from “Pulp Fiction” and “The Godfather.” These are
alternately blocked and revealed by what Mitchell calls “monochromes,”
bands of solid color pulsing arhythmically up from the floor and down from
the ceiling, palpating the imagery with an uneasy, blinking movement. At
times the whole scene is obliterated, but at no point are any faces visible,
keeping the celebrity appeal of the material at a certain distance. We
recognize Mia and Vincent as they perform their iconic twist around the red-
dot center of a dance floor painted to resemble a giant vintage RPM vinyl
platter. Repeated, however, the clip distills into gestures, approach and
retreat, and the winding up of passion’s tight springs – a primal scene of
courtship. Familiarity gradually spins out, replaced by the shadows of viewers
as they moved between the projectors, adding a third layer of ambiguous
presence to the headless dance and the fibrillation of the monochrome.
   The second, slower, funereal movement of Beethoven’s Seventh
Symphony – which Richard Wagner famously nicknamed “the apotheosis of
the dance” – plays continuously, lending its ponderous gravity to Mitchell’s
flickering, Plato’s cave-like construction. The other wall of the gallery affords
quick glimpses of tall tomato plants, a man’s white shirt, and a child’s
overalls, tumbled anxiously together. Here the monochrome is pale green,
flapping like an awning in a summer breeze over a brief scene found near the
end of “The Godfather.” Don Corleone is dying of a heart attack as he plays
with his grandson. Again, we see no faces. No movement even identifies the
specific action. The short clip’s jerky camera motions convey the onset of
decay amid overripe humidity, suggesting the fluid outlines of identity at the
beginning and end of life – as opposed to the self-absorption and sexual role-
playing of the “Pulp Fiction” scene. In the exhibition as in real life, perhaps,
viewers can access only one of these back-to-back perspectives on eros and
thanatos at a time.
   In the installation, the shadows of visitors move like ranks of midgets and
giants against the movie scenes, while the monochromes reflect on their
actual feet and faces in the no-man’s land between the films. If Mitchell’s work
here represents a Debordian “detournement,” seizing and redirecting brand
names peeled from ubiquitous mass culture, it is also a tribute to the power
of its constitutive scenes.