The Power in Dean Mitchell’s West

Posted on May 25, 2017 by Blaine Smith in

Vast by Dean Mitchell. Watercolor, 20″ x 30″.

When walking through the galleries at the Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition this June, you will undoubtedly find yourself transported to endless scenes of enduring Western grandeur. Between the saturated tones of lush mountains, endless thriving deserts, stoic foraging animals, and near mythical figures hang a few watercolor paintings that may, at first glance, feel dull, ordinary, and tonally out of place. However, these handpicked works by artist Dean Mitchell challenge the viewer to pause and assess them: to think, to empathize, to more fully internalize the rich heritage of the American West and its people.

Much of what falls under the Western art genre could be described as timeless, romanticized, and picturesque. We often idealize the West, but for most people who lived it, the experiences of the West stand in stark contrast to these exquisitely constructed images. They were unrelenting, rough, and hostile stories encircled in an extraordinarily beautiful land. These tales embody the people’s lives who took the future into their own hands, who struggled against the odds, who failed, and who, if fortunate, succeeded. They are the people whose experiences layered on generations of stories, generations of lives each leaving their mark on the land to deteriorate long after them.

The West lives and breathes perseverance. You feel it, and if you approach it with an open nature, you will see this represented as much in a dilapidated reservation dwelling as you do in the vistas and the valleys. To portray perseverance in the moving way Mitchell can, one must have personally survived the toil and struggles necessary to internalize the emotions and sentimentalities of endurance. Raised by his grandmother who introduced him to art through paint by numbers, he developed a passion and skill for precisely depicting the emotional and economic trials he experienced and witnessed around him as a child and young adult.

Reservation Structure II by Dean Mitchell. Watercolor 20″ x 30″

For Mitchell, art is not about painting the archetypal styles and scenes that have long been done before him; it symbolizes the creating and communicating of real substance in the modern world. You see this in the expressions of the individuals he depicts. In one image you immediately understand their plights and trials. You also find it in the landscapes and structures. Objects such as weather-worn boulders, rubble, and a clear loss of newness express the tone of each piece.

Self-defined as a contemporary artist painting the modern day concerns of the American West, Mitchell paints both in realism and abstract realism. He describes his work as “heading more toward the abstract naturally right now.” Incorporating realistic elements with the nonrepresentational allows for an assessment and deeper dialogue between the two. This abstract direction more fully reflects the minimalist version of the West that Mitchell paints. The important use of negative space in each piece has become a vital aspect of this particular brand of minimalism as it helps define the subject matter’s boundaries and brings an open breath of balance to the composition.

Jerome by Dean Mitchell. Watercolor, 30″ x 20″.

The minimal, open approach to composing the structure mirrors the honesty and singular sense of perseverance that typifies his art. Not interested in painting the commercialized West as seen in heritage celebrations or festivals, he shows the real, raw, and gritty working class version — the version he grew up immersed in and understands. One particularly intriguing collection delves into contemporary Native American structures and environments. In place of adobes and teepees you see shacks and deteriorating neighborhoods, trash littered about under sagging power lines, and empty, neutral skies. This exemplifies the West as many know it, and has become the honest, modern story needing told.

“It’s about the world we live in,” said Mitchell. “The story of our West: our empathy, our sensitivity.” Discovering Mitchell’s work is like looking through the costume and the ornamentation to find the heart of the Western experience. At the end of the day, is that not what we are looking for? A way to bond with our shared heritage and feel a connection with the humanity of others. If you take the time to look during the Prix de West show, a rich and vibrant story you will surely find.


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About Blaine

Blaine Smith works in the Traffic & Graphics Department at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. His love of history and museums was spawned by his grandfather, who owns his own museum in southeast Colorado.