Tyler Mitchell: Domestic Imaginaries at the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (Published Burnaway)

Memories of home forge deep, emotional connections to one’s roots. Just as a physical landscape is characterized by its features and terrain, an emotional landscape is marked by its highs and lows, joys and sorrows, loves and heartbreaks. There is no formal entrance/exit into Tyler Mitchell’s exhibition Domestic Imaginaries at the SCAD Museum of Art. The gallery is one of the museum’s most unique spaces, it is narrow and nearly three hundred feet long. One side preserves the historical essence of the 1853 building, with its gray brick archways, while the other side has floor-to-ceiling windows allowing the low sun to cast long, dramatic shadows over everything. With the absence of a predetermined path, visitors are emboldened to navigate the show freely and disregard the typical demands of a linear layout.

The gallery’s distinctive design allowed Mitchell to install a meandering rope laundry line that traversed the space, cutting across it in a zigzagging pattern. The photographs are dye-sublimation prints on sheer fabrics such as silk, jersey, linen, or cotton secured by wooden clothespins; they float above me, gently redirecting my path. These are memories of home, memories of the land. Deliberate choices were made about how taut the fabrics would hang and how the laundry lines and clothespins mimic the photographs they hold up. Mitchell’s narrative unfolds with quiet patience, and I mirror the ease we see in the photos. 

It is bittersweet, but I seldom meet his subjects face to face. Instead, I simply get an idea of who they are and a chance to witness their lives in slow motion. Repeatedly, I see hands reaching into a bucket, rinsing and wringing, then hanging the fabric on lines, not dissimilar to the ones in the gallery. The images are atmospheric— evocative of a pastoral landscape in an endlessly muggy summer—a place characterized by sumptuous breezes, but also subtle reminders of peril, oppression, and injustice. This body of work delves into the impact of the sharecropping past and segregation present as it relates to land. The work addresses who gets to break the “green ceiling” and feel a sense of comfort despite wounds cultivated for over a century. This history is recent, the experiences of our parents and grandparents. Mitchell’s relationship with the land emerges from a life deeply rooted in finding leisure in excursions into the natural environment, a recreation opportunity that is still not equal to this day.
Dotting the exhibition are several works fabricated from cherry and walnut wood. Cabinets, armoires, and bookshelves made to hold memories, each slightly oversized as though rendered from the vantage point of a small child. The designs have a certain quirkiness, as though the maker took inspiration from the unique character of the wood itself (the inherent color, grain, and texture) and let the wood determine the way. My favorite of these works is Altar VI (Urn), a 2023 hexagonal tower that offers fresh perspectives at every turn. Through the glass windows, there are books that address foraging crops, biochemistry, the Five Scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, Fatherhood in Black America, and Colorscapes: Inspiring Palettes for the Home. Most titles are covered in distinctive blue dust jackets adorned with embossed details. Some panes hold Mitchell’s photographs, shadowy figures printed directly onto the opaque glass. Sitting atop a pedestal, I saw what I believed to be a lighthouse, a beacon of light and education, but on further review, I couldn’t shake the object’s resemblance to Atlanta’s “Black Marias,” the Victorian-era one-person holding cells the police used before they were considered inhumane.

Despite the weight and vulnerability of Mitchell’s subject matter, the artist handles it in the quietest, most serene way that leaves one feeling for the briefest moments that everything will be ok. This comes from a settled selfhood. Born and raised under Atlanta’s trademark tree canopy, the “city in the forest” was his playground. This land is his land. Even with the figures covered or silhouetted behind the fabric, the images feel almost unbearably personal. In House is Not a Home (2023), the figure is evasive, shrouded in a luxurious pink silk fabric like that on which his image is printed. Refusing the formality of its walnut frame, the work becomes a relief as the photograph’s fabric lays over, under, and around the border that is tasked to hold together the edges of the picture. He is rightly skeptical of letting us into his world.

This show in Savannah is a homecoming of sorts, his first exhibition in the state. While many have failed to accurately portray the harsh brilliance of Georgia’s diverse topographies, Mitchell succeeds is in bringing tenderness to a site of violence and memory. He succeeds because of his subjects’ bravery and imagination. The images offer reassurance and consolation. There is a timelessness to these Georgia grasslands.

Tyler Mitchell: Domestic Imaginaries at the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (Published Burnaway, December 12, 2023)