Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Security and Shelter

Surel Mitchell explores protection, wonders of shellac


I have enjoyed Surel Mitchell's work since I last interviewed her for the Spring 2004 Idaho Arts Quarterly, in which she was the cover artist. So I was honored to be given the opportunity to review her latest show at J Crist Gallery. Can I be an unbiased reviewer? Probably not. In the small Boise art world, it's hard not to have developed a few friendships with fellow artists. But I rarely mince words.

Golden, honey-dripped three- and two-dimensional works by Mitchell adorn the J Crist Gallery main room with more of Mitchell's works down halls and around corners. Having seen her studio and lifetime of work, it's hard to pin her down to a specific style. But if viewers only see her show, entitled "N'est ce pas?," they will clearly see that Mitchell has focused on a theme over the previous few years, especially with her exploration and love of shellac. The show is a great opportunity to see Mitchell's recent work.

"Sheltering That Which Is Fragile and Precious" is one series of pieces in the show. The pieces are shellacked packages hanging on the gallery walls that offer amber tones of paper-wrapped things bound with waxed twine. They were made "while thinking about things precious and fragile," the Mitchell told me in 2004, which mirrors the name for this series. The shellac turns the paper slightly transparent and it's as though a viewer can glimpse ghostly objects inside. Some packages offer no glimpse of their contents and only their titles ("Air," "Earth" and "Water") offer a hint at what is inside. The packages of letters allude to freedom-of-speech themes, perhaps insinuating that to protect it, we must secure it.

Protection and shelter are major themes in Mitchell's work. Her drawings of umbrellas (note: Mitchell dislikes sunlight) portray unreliable protection, as holes and tears seem to work their way onto the fragile fabrics on their tops. Some umbrella drawings verge on the abstract, and look like large, canopied trees, drawn in a minimalist style. Some of the drawings on large sheets of handmade paper are linked together with the shellac and the drawings stretched all the way across. Similarly, other drawings of circles and imperfect circles with wonderful amber hues reflect not only the circles of sun and light sources, but of umbrellas bent by the wind as if viewed from above.

In another group of pieces, a row of beautifully built display boxes, each with a working antique keyed lock, protect a series of poems and corresponding books. Each book, made with shellacked pages and bound ornately as an illuminated manuscript, is mounted inside a case below a gold-inked poem placed on a black background. If viewers were to remove the books and carefully leaf through the pages, they could read the handwritten poem inside.

The one work that stands out the most, and differs from the rest in the collection, is a large brown painting which commands a central point in the show. The canvas is a field of brown so dark, it's almost black. Floating in this void is an object. The title gives no hint to what the object is. While it looks like a seed pod or blossom, organic in nature, it could just as easily be a medical device or alien probe.

While the work is beautiful, stark and disturbing at the same time, it stands in contrast to the other works much like an exclamation point on a sigh.

Exhibition runs until Dec. 2. Gallery hours are Tues.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sat. 12-4 p.m. J. Crist Gallery, 223 S. 17th, 336-2671.