San Francisco

Jeffry Mitchell

Rena Bransten Gallery

In Jeffry Mitchell’s sprawling installation of gleefully goofy objects and drawings, his pantheistic preoccupation with art as a vehicle for the expression of religious faith reveals itself in objects and images derived from wildly diverse sources. These include a 3-D version of Ensor’s famous painting of Christ’s entrance into Brussels; a mandala of Mickey Mouse–like images called The Jesus Flower, 1991; and two truly amazing tableaux, the forms of which are loosely based on Buddhist devotional sculpture. These last two, My Pond and Joy in Repetition (both 1991), are each composed of hundreds of little plaster figures painted with watercolor and perched on lotus blossoms, clouds, turtles, or thrones. Naked and smiling beatifically, these blonde, blue-eyed little-boy-Buddha-puttis look good enough to eat.

Mitchell’s work, however, is not all marzipan and Baroque cake-decoration. In his interpretation of Ensor’s painting, retitled Jesus in a Crowd, 1991, a clown-faced figure in the foreground literally stretches long sweater-clad arms into the gallery; its puffy Michelin Man hands lie on the floor in a limp gesture of supplication. Like Ensor’s image of Jesus being ignored by a crowd of bourgeois Belgians, this vision of the clown-Christ, surrounded by hundreds of dopey little grinning faces, comments on the place and meaning of religion in contemporary culture.

Mitchell, an ex-Catholic who has lived in Japan and Italy, has a wonderfully syncretic eye for detail. The sweater in which the Christ/clown has been arrayed, for instance, suggests the custom, common to many cultures, of dressing religious statues up like dolls, ranging from elaborately garbed Virgin Marys to the swaddled gods found in roadside shrines throughout Asia. As ominous as it is comforting or lovable, this stuffed clown suggests that, like Mike Kelley or Claes Oldenburg, Mitchell has the ability to enter the real psychological landscape of childhood at will. Like Oldenburg’s, Mitchell’s graphic works are often wickedly humorous, radiating an exuberant sexuality, though they lack Oldenburg’s yuck-yuck, adolescently phallic obsession with big tools and baseball bats. Instead, Mitchell invokes the “polymorphously perverse” sensuality of our earliest years, back when sex was innocent because it wasn’t sex yet—the brief, vulnerable state of grace all humans share, before we learn about the consequences of our acts, or that we are going to die someday.

Maria Porges