Painter of human interactions
Ariel Mitchell: Ariel Mitchell uses paint to depict basic human interactions; grouping, dispersing, flocking, ritual, and fear of the unknown. She is fascinated by the subtle psychologies we rely on to define ourselves, and the unforeseen transfers of energy that underlie our most fundamental interactions. Ariel was born in Providence, RI, and grew up in Stonington, CT. She received a degree in painting from The Maryland Institute College of Art in 2007. In 2009, she attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts before moving to Southern California, where she kept a studio and taught yoga. She then moved to Scandinavia, and later, New York. It was while working for Jeff Koons that she decided to return to painting after an almost-decade hiatus. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn.
Tell me a little about your recent work. Is there something particular about painting that attracts you more than other media?
I majored in painting in college and I’ve always been a painter. I feel like I have a deep relationship with paint as a medium. There was a time when I took a long break from painting, and I was experimenting with other media, like performance and the subsequent documentation of that. I was also doing some installation work and sculpture. All of these mediums expressed things differently. When I came back to painting I realized it’s very powerful for me because I feel like it’s a way to commune with the universe. You can get the most micro and macro with painting. It’s very human. It’s very tactile. When you let it be itself and do the things it wants to do, it can be very powerful.
You’ve said that nightly news images of Donald Trump were in inspiration for some of your most recent paintings. Do you feel that your work has a political dimension?
It doesn’t have a political dimension. Donald Trump was an inspiration for these recent paintings because he’s a very strong force. He’s got a lot of energy behind him. So, I wanted to communicate that energy through the paint. These paintings are more about communicating energy than anything else, but I always thought it was funny that Donald Trump became part of their inspiration, even ironically.
Is this a positive energy, or a negative energy?
Its both. This exchange that we’re having right now has a certain energy to it. Long term relationships have an energy to them. When you’re on social media, that has a certain energy. Death and birth and these big things that happen in life are really infused with energy. In my paintings I like to depict people in groups, which I think is a really fascinating human thing that we do. Whether its physical, or online. I like to get at the the energy within that.
You took nearly a decade off from painting. What prompted this hiatus, and why have you returned to the medium?
I left painting when I graduated from college in 2007. I still dabbled with it, but I think at that moment in time I felt that it left me in a way, or that I encountered a roadblock. I left it by starting to make work on the walls behind the painting. I was like, “It doesn’t have to be confined to a canvas, or brushes and paint.” That was my leap into installation work. That turned into performance. I went through this succession of media that I was delving into, and the last medium was a business that I opened and subsequently closed because it was not financially sustainable. It was through that last medium of business that I got a job with Jeff Koons. I was in the painting department, and I realized, being around the paint, smelling it and working with it, how much I missed it, and that I was meant to be working with paint.
You hold a degree in painting from Maryland Institute College of Art. What impact did formal training have on you as an artist?
I enjoyed my time at MICA. There’s something to be said for learning the techniques of a medium. That can be very useful. It’s like learning the alphabet. But, if you don’t learn the alphabet then you’re free to make up your own. The formal training at MICA was a good opportunity to learn the history of art, and all the baggage that painting carries, especially today. I think it’s important to learn all that stuff. Whether you choose to use it in your own career is your own choice.
You spent some time working for Jeff Koons. What was that experience like and how has it influenced your artistic practice?
It was a really great experience. There are amazing people who work there. First of all, it got me back into painting, but in the very Koonsian manner of super sharp detail. I was doing work like that before. I did a small series of retainers. That to me was also a way of trying to communicate the energy that people have. I think the mouth is a very intimate space that we communicate with, and do all sorts of things with. These retainers were painted in a photorealistic manner. But then I realized, that’s not what paint is for necessarily. I could do that just as easily on Adobe Photoshop. But, working for Jeff Koons was great. Really good pay and really good benefits and an amazing culture within the studio. It’s its own world. Everyone is really nice who works there and there isn’t a lot of ego flying around. People have met there and babies have been born there. It’s its own funny family. There’s a soccer team that plays every lunch. Then he laid off seventy people, and I was one of them. But then I was collecting unemployment, so…silver linings.
You’ve lived and worked in California, New York, and Scandinavia. What are some of the most notable differences that you encountered, as an artist, between the three?
I moved to Southern California. There were lots of great people and great food. I’ve decided that whether is a really big influence on how cultures are shaped. There’s not a lot of the angst that I was used to growing up on the East Coast, which I think can also influence art. I was living in San Diego. I think if I had been in LA it would have been a different story because there’s a great art culture in LA. I made a lot of friends and I realized they had all moved out there from the East Coast. The art scene in San Diego revolves around the Universities, and, because I hadn’t gone to one of those universities, I felt like a bit of an outsider. But I still had a great studio, and I was participating in shows, and I was on the board of a big studio space and teaching yoga. But three years was plenty of time…more than enough. I then moved to Norway, to Bergen, which is an amazing city also. Just beautiful. The art culture in Scandanavia is different because nobody wants to offend anybody else. So, critiques feel a little bit flat footed. Nobody wants to say, “I think your work is shit. You should change it.” But, there is great art coming out of Bergen. When I was there I worked on the Bergen Assembly, which is this fantastic contemporary art triennial. That was very cool because you’re bringing contemporary artists in from all over the world and spreading them out all over the city. That had its own culture. But, as far as other artists working there, I was looking for more of a push-pull and I wasn’t finding it. When I moved to New York it was like taking a big breath. I finally felt like I was home. What's amazing is that it is still the city that artists, writers, dancers, musicians and all other creatives move to to make it. I've found a peace here that I haven't found anywhere else.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career as an artist?
If you have a feeling that you need to make something just really follow that feeling and try not to listen to anybody telling you anything otherwise.
Interviewed by Benjamin Stolurow