Jo Mitchell
East International 2004

Tattoos, motorcycles and leather outfits are things normally associated with bad girls, unhinged sexuality and the freedom of spirit akin to post-war, 1960s counter culture. Unencumbered by what society tells them to do, there are no bouncing toddlers on knees and baking cakes for this crew. Instead they are fiercely independent and unfettered to a domestic environment; their habitat is the open road, the biker bar or the hippie commune. Sexy, fun and tough, this kind of alpha female is epitomized in this country by Marianne Faithfull.
Jo Mitchell's early work Girl On a Motorcycle is titled after the 1968 sexploitation film, and is inspired by its publicity poster. In this photograph the artist presents herself, from mid-torso to top of thigh, in a leather jumpsuit, provocatively unzipped to the waist. Her hands, bejeweled with heavy silver rings, rest on her hips in a position of determination; each of her press-on nails is painted a different startling colour. A large leather belt with a target-like yellow buckle (which cleverly mimics the graphics of the original movie poster) completes the outfit. The image is one of defiant female sexuality, a woman unafraid to exist on the fringes of society.
Airbrushed Fantasy presents a similar motif. A woman's leg is shown from the
calf downward, decorated with colourful flame-like curlicues and designs that reflect the machinery of the motorcycle on which she straddles. The leg culminates in a spectacular foot with bright and perversely long painted toenails. The shoe that she wears consists only of a sole, giving an unprecedented view of the entire foot, which is at once both naked and clothed in paint. This limb becomes part human, part beast, part engine, and the polished surfaces of the motorcycle behind it reinforce the fetishisized aspects of the photograph, suggesting the morphing of being and machine. This piece surpasses Girl on a Motorcycle in its fantasized notion of female sexuality. Here the female has been reduced to a body part, yet becomes more than human, a super-real and surreal creature.
Mitchell's work transcends the feminist interpretation of 1960s bad girl. It defies a biological or sexual indication of gender and instead opts for one constructed through performance, play and fantasy. In our post-feminist generation there are seemingly no longer any rules about how a woman must exist within society. One thinks of the empowered female characters - from martial art queens in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill to cyber babe in Tomb Raider - who proliferate in popular culture. Mitchell's Angels, a series of photographs that include a Lara Croft type character, sums up this ethos. Mitchell again presents torso shots that seem to extend the earlier motorcycle narrative into the high-tech future of the twenty-first century. The 'Hells Angels' buckle that this character wears further bridges the gap between the generations.
Mitchell is probably most known for her text-based wall pieces that transform words into abstract forms. The designs for these wall paintings are derived from such iconographic forms as crosses and grids, which act as a medium for exploring the shift between meaning and motif. Simple texts are morphed into elaborate, calligraphic styles, which range from neo-Gothic to the Islamic-inspired. Her choice of words -- Agony, Suicide, Lust and Mayhem – says a lot. They speak of tortuous, tragic subjects, transcending time or cultural specificity; yet are derived from popular culture such as the graphic language of tattoos. Recently a more personal and montaged vernacular is explored as with Black Rebel Yellow, a text piece that references a Billy Idol song as well as the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Like a medieval script that is unrecognizable even though it is written in English, Mitchell's text pieces take time to decipher. One's first reaction is that the painstakingly cut pieces of vinyl, card or rubber are abstract patterns. It is only through further analysis that the words are discerned. Mitchell's video work, Ghost Rider, is the embodiment of this phenomenological state. In it, the words Ghost Rider (taken from a song by the band Suicide) appear slowly, emerging out of a pillow of smoke. The satisfaction is soon deprived as the smoke once again fills the frame, taking the viewer from desire to gratification and back to deprivation in just over one minute.
Like the photographic works, there is an explicit and playful character to the text pieces. They are simple and pithy, direct and unmediated, save for the layering of colours creating an almost trompe-l’oeil illusion. One of the elements that makes Mitchell's work interesting is the spatial shift from skin (the original site for these tattoos) or manuscript page to the gallery wall. In doing so, Mitchell elevates the everyday into the status of cultural iconic object, in a manner reminiscent of Warhol's homage to the Cambells soup can.
In Deep House, hybrid motifs are melded with the asceticism of high modernist style. The title of the piece comes from a specific brand of contemporary, urban music that has associations with youth culture and the club scene. The words also suggest a more psychological as well as physical space, whether personal or generic. Mitchell's abiding interest in the merging of associations from sources including music, film, architecture and design is played out in Deep House. Here the visual language taken from geometric designs on club-flyers and posters, appropriation of architectural spaces and graphics from music magazines are fused to create a visual and spatial “scene”. Throughout her practice, from photography to text and installation, there is this play between cultural iconography at various levels. From motorcycle girls and heavy metal references to modernist architecture, Mitchell comments on the culture in which she exists, translating these various inspirations -- from tough girls to gothic texts -- into her unique visual language. 

© KATHY BATTISTA, 2004