If you love traditional painting, plan a trip soon to the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art to see "Dean Mitchell: Visions with Heart and Soul." It's as heartwarming and soul-satisfying an exhibition as you'll find.
Mitchell is a representational artist and his favored mediums are watercolor and oil. He has mastered both, applying them to landscapes and portraits, mostly of the African-American community in which he was raised.
His watercolors are especially beautiful, technically excellent and evocative of time and place. One of his greatest accomplishments is his ability to capture a subject, even one we know is close to his heart, without the dreaded weight of sentimentality. He also generally bypasses another cliche seen so often in works portraying minorities or ethnicities, a generic form of quiet dignity meant to convey heroism in the face of adversity. What it usually conveys is condescension.
The one exception is a painting of a black woman swathed in white who sits before us looking up inspirationally. Our viewpoint is from about her knees, which heightens the drama. I want her to lower her eyes and look at us. It's a lovely work but just too fraught for me.
In almost every other work here, Mitchell shows himself to be a genre painter, a chronicler of life around him, which he portrays without judgment or commentary. Landscapes, from balconies and doorways in New Orleans to old churches and Gulf of Mexico shrimp boats, are usually unpeopled. One thinks of Andrew Wyeth in the white clapboard and evocative shadows. Then he'll surprise us with an Edward Hopper-ish oil painting that includes two young women walking on the sidewalk, the background buildings a mass of vertical shapes suggesting abstraction. His tiny still lifes of everyday, random objects have the finish of Vermeer.
This is a sort-of retrospective in that it includes art from his childhood and student days. Mitchell (b. 1957) was a prodigy; you can see it in a 1975 drawing and in a painting, Grandma's Clothesline, a year later. In it, shirts and sheets are delineated then dissolved into a pale watercolor wash extending to the surface edge. It suggests a continuum, a sense that the clothesline anchors the artist psychically as much as it does the garments literally. At 18 he still had much to learn about how to paint but he already understood what he should paint.
We don't need wall texts to glean the importance of his grandmother in his life. In addition to the clothesline, she's represented by three portraits painted posthumously. She raised him in a small, segregated Florida town and he marshals for her his most formidable gifts. We see her as she ages, unsmiling and strong and, even when she's clearly ill, in no way idealized. She was more than enough just as herself and he honors that.
You get the sense she would broach no excuses for less than the best. Mitchell doesn't either.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.