Jeffry Mitchell, White Elephant Lamps, earthenware and light bulbs, early 2000s.

At the entrance to Jeffry Mitchell’s Henry Art Gallery retrospective Like a Valentine, the first thing you encounter is a pair of white elephant lamps. Stumpy, simple and Babar-like, the clay elephants raise erect trunks with bright, bare light bulbs at their tips. Electrical cords protrude from the anatomically correct holes beneath their tails. Their bawdy sweetness is a perfect introduction to Mitchell’s world.

The exhibition’s title couldn’t be more apt. Mitchell’s artworks are intimate, even when the scale is large. The materials are fragile, the colors pale, the content personal and tender, and somehow even the most explicit references to gay sex—often relayed through animal surrogates—remain infused with naïve wonder. With all the little bunnies and bears and elephants, the sculptural tableaus might seem made for a kid’s birthday party, until you take a closer look.  

Jeffry Mitchell, Bruno Poster, 1992.

Materiality and sensuality are Mitchell’s hallmarks. He makes Japanese-style paper cut-outs, but also uses sleight of hand to make earthenware that gleams like metal, a plaster chain that mimics paper, and a paper screen that seems swooshed with frosting. He can be very precise in his workmanship or revel in paint that runs, earthenware that’s cracked or misshapen. Whether he is working in clay, wax, wood, plastic or paper, large mixed media installations or diminutive watercolor sketches, Mitchell’s imagery celebrates beauty in a very Asian, wabi-sabi way, with all its imperfections. Mitchell’s introduction to Japanese aesthetic principles came in the early 1980s, when he apprenticed as a production potter, and those lessons still infuse his work 30 years later.

But Japan is only one influence on Mitchell, and in this show we have a chance to see the full range in pieces that have long been hidden in private collections. One unforgettable image that surfaced is the 1992 lithograph with watercolor, Bruno Poster, so startlingly suggestive of Marsden Hartley’s impassioned Adelard the Drowned, it stopped me in my tracks. There’s nothing else like it in the show and it reveals the strong foundations of Mitchell’s technique. There is no better way to get to know an artist than a well-chosen retrospective and Like a Valentine, as well as the accompanying book, bring well-deserved honor to this admired Seattle artist.

Like a Valentine: The Art of Jeffry Mitchell
Thru Jan 27, Henry Art Gallery, $6–$10