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Issue 10

Tyler Mitchell: 'Nature Can be a Freeing Space'

The celebrated photographer speaks to frieze senior editor Terence Trouillot about his new commission for Frieze Masters 2022

BY Tyler Mitchell AND Terence Trouillot in Frieze Masters , Interviews | 05 OCT 22

Terence Trouillot Tell me about this project you’re working on for Frieze Masters in London. You’re essentially presenting a series of works inspired by historical paintings. What sources are you drawing from in this new series of photographs?

Tyler Mitchell I’m finding out more about the project as I go along. It’s an experiment. I like the idea that Frieze Masters is now trying to further articulate its vision by placing a contemporary artist in dialogue with masterworks from the 1600s–1900s. For me, it’s an exciting space because I’ve been making this new body of work – which will be shown at Frieze Masters – that furthers my interest in contemporary Black presence in photography, of course, but also thinks through these ideas of repose, relaxation and the idyllic as it relates to the landscape and non-western civilisations. So, you have in there all these references to Rococo and Baroque, such as Nicolas Poussin’s arcadian landscape With Orpheus and Eurydice (1650–53); but also the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Paul Cézanne’s The Bathers (1898–1905) and Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings from the 1890s. I like fusing those motifs together with the social imagery of how Black folks live today.

Tyler Mitchell, Don’t give me no itty bitty tiny tub, I need the whole entire complete deep blue sea!, 2022. Courtesy: © Tyler Mitchell

So, this is a long-winded way of saying, I think this is going to be a really disruptive and fun project because, as a young 27-year-old photographer, I’m making a body of work that is an evolution or an expansion on what I’ve already done in fashion and the art world. This project is also coinciding with my show at Gagosian, opening this fall in London – my second-ever gallery exhibition. It’s exciting to have the Frieze commission in dialogue with this exhibition. There will be some interesting tensions between the work: something that will make people raise an eyebrow, I think.

TT It seems as though you’re taking the opportunity to cause some friction with this commission, which is interesting: this idea of the Black presence in relation to European painting. Did you have the chance to see the exhibition ‘Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Géricault to Matisse’ at the Musée d’Orsay, curated by Denise Murrell? It was a wonderful survey on the presence of Black figures in 19th-century art in France. I wonder if this show may have been a point of reference.

TM I did see that show. I think Deborah Willis was the one who essentially told me to check out the catalogue for ‘Posing Modernity’. I think the show operates similarly to the way I’m thinking through ideas of contemporary Black presence in my images. For me, they call forth certain histories, but they’re not bound to a certain time period, and they’re not even bound to a place. A lot of these images are works in which we’re seeing Black figures contend with and be in relationship to landscape and space, whether that’s an artificial landscape, like the sky backdrop in New Horizons III (2022) or in a collage-style way, hung in front of a city backdrop in New Horizons II (2022).

Tyler Mitchell, Iridescent, 2022. Courtesy: © Tyler Mitchell

These photos continue my exploration of how Black folks psychologically relate to outdoor space: how we move through space, how space creates in us a psychological sense of, or need for, hyper vigilance. When we think about the history of death, violence, persecution in our community, nature can be a freeing space. I’m thinking of Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black (2018), or these conversations that are happening now around Black folks reconnecting to the land. There’s also Lauren Halsey’s 'Summaeverythang' project (2020–ongoing) around getting organic produce to people in South Central, Los Angeles.

So, the project is much more than just a reinterpretation of some paintings. There’s more of a dialogue to be had that’s about nuance and time – what’s changed and what hasn’t – especially as we come off the heels of two years of talking about a certain kind of reckoning sparked by the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings. So, that’s more what these photographs are about. Of course, history plays an instrumental role in my practice and I think that’s exactly what Frieze Masters is trying to articulate in this project series – how contemporary artists are always drawing from history and classical archetypes to make their work.

TT I’m reminded of your piece Riverside Scene (2021), which is this idyllic landscape, with Black folks leisurely sitting on a riverbank. It didn’t really register to me until now, but the work is so reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–86).

TM Riverside Scene almost takes on a more narrative quality, in that it tries to think about the figure in relationship to space. The term, I guess, would be ‘environmental portrait’. I’m calling forth certain histories, and none of these images are bound by time and space. There are certain motifs that might look like they’re from the 1800s or from 2022.

So, there’s mixture that I think. For me, that tension is always interesting, whether it’s Seurat or just Tyler Mitchell’s world of fascinations, or old African photography, when you think about the way Black folks would pose in front of painted canvas backdrops. I think it’s a blending of all of that, that makes it so interesting for this work to stand in tension and dialogue with some of these Old Master paintings.

Tyler Mitchell, New Horizons, 2022. Courtesy: © Tyler Mitchell

TT Maybe we could talk a little bit about the show at Gagosian, which is titled ‘Chrysalis’. How will this show differ from the Frieze commission?

TM The show furthers my interest in this idea of Black beauty, desire and longing in the world as it relates to landscape. I made most of the images in upstate New York. I made a few in London, as well. They also call forth this history of images of Black folks in and from the south. There’s one image of a girl in front of this artificial painted backdrop, in which she’s surrounded by this white picket fence. The title of the work is Cage (2022) and you can tell that she’s in a studio environment. It’s all related to the Frieze Masters commission, basically, in that we’re seeing young Black men and women in varying states of repose, self-determination and self-protection.

TT What is the inspiration behind the title?

TM Chrysalis is the transformative state or inflection point when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. So, we’re seeing this inflection point through time, but also the subjects themselves who are on the cusp of adulthood: a point of transition but also a point of emergence for myself as an artist working in this new language that thinks about not just the utopic, but also the dangerous elements of the outdoors; the seductive and threatening nature of the American Dream, as it were.

TT London has always been a place of inspiration for you, right? Can you speak a little bit about that and what it means for you to be showing work here?

TM Yes. It’s funny. Again, the Gagosian exhibition is my second-ever gallery show. This Frieze Masters commission is obviously a unique and exciting project. I’ve lived and spent a lot of time going in and out of London, both because it’s obviously a central hub for fashion work, but it’s also a place where I was in a romantic relationship with someone. So, it’s a place that has had a deep significance for me and my practice.

Tyler Mitchell, Saturday Afternoon, 2022. Courtesy: © Tyler Mitchell

London is obviously a town with so much history to play with, particularly when you think about the history of photographs. Actually, I don’t think as many people make this connection but I’m from Atlanta, Georgia, and the American South and England have so much more in common than people really realize, I think. Both cultures are so obsessed with a certain type of politeness and etiquette. It results in flowery language and flamboyant visuals. The countryside of England visually reminds me of and echoes the countryside and elements of nature in Georgia.

So, I think there’s something about London and the art and fashion scenes here that really has informed me conceptually as an artist. But I’m not coming over to London to do a British show. I’m still being true to myself, but I’m certainly aware of the context, and the way that London has played a significant role in who I am.

TT I must say, I’m glad to see that you’re not taking on the remit of the Frieze Masters project in a straightforward way – more obliquely. I wonder if you could speak a bit about that disconnect, or what you even think about the term ‘Old Masters’.

TM I think of Kerry James Marshall, and his spelling of the word ‘mastery’, which is spelled incorrectly: M A S T R Y. I remember seeing a talk between Marshall and Arthur Jafa, which started to feel like an intellectual head-spin, quite frankly: two of the greatest minds of contemporary art just going at it, basically.

One of the things that came out of that was Jafa saying to Marshall that he misspelled the word because the mastery is undeniable in his work: the formal rigour, the work ethic, the enticing beauty, all of it captivates people. But there was never an interest in becoming a master. That can call forth not just the dictatorial ideas of how to make art or how to be an artist, but also mastery of course, we think, in the way of slavery.

Tyler Mitchell, The Aviator, 2022. Courtesy: © Tyler Mitchell

TT I think there’s something to say about that, in terms of how you build shared connections with folks you invite to photograph, and how you build relationships with subjects. It becomes a collaborative process, although you are organising and orchestrating it as well, which seems to be the antithesis of a dictatorial process. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your approach to working with your models?

TM Yes. It’s a good question. In this work I hopefully invited them into my world, tried to tell them about what sorts of stories I was trying to convey. A lot of times I work with young people. The certain naiveté of the gaze with young folks is always exciting to me, in that it calls forth immediately a contemporary type of image.

I think it’s exciting to see how they react to posing themselves in front of these artificial backdrops, or even swimming through mud or all these other gestures and motifs that I’m playing with, because they’re figuring out as we’re making it. Usually, they’re creative people. A lot of them make art themselves or they’re fashion designers, what have you. It’s oftentimes the case.

I like that they’re able to understand that I’m bringing them into this portal that’s a little bit timeless. Not timeless, but out of time.

Find out more about Tyler Mitchell's new commission for Frieze Masters here

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Main image: Tyler Mitchell, New Horizons III, 2022. Courtesy: © Tyler Mitchell

Thumbnail: Tyler Mitchell, 
Cage II, 2022. Courtesy: © Tyler Mitchell

Tyler Mitchell is an artist and photographer based in New York City.

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.