Picture of the Week: X on the Run by Nancy Mitchnick

April 29, 2023

X on the Run, Nancy Mitchnick, 1986, oil on canvas, 84 x 48 in.

Nancy Mitchnick is a notable Michigan artist and educator, and one of the few female artists associated with Detroit’s Cass Corridor group of the late 1960s and 1970s. After graduating from Wayne State University, Mitchnick moved to New York City in 1973. While in New York, she “drove a taxi, worked in an after-hours joint, assisted Brice Marden, raised her daughter, [and] taught at Bard College.” After living in New York for ten years, she “had a well-received exhibition at Hirschl and Adler Modern,” along with another successful show there two years later. In addition to Bard College, Mitchnick has also taught “at the California Institute of the Arts for ten years, and was the Rudolph Anaheim Lecturer on Studio Arts at Harvard University for 15 years.” Mitchnick has received several prestigious awards throughout her career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts award, the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching award at Harvard College, and was the 2015 Kresge Visual Arts Fellow. 

Mitchnick’s artwork is described as “emotional and strong, often various, and sometimes humorous.” Her more recent paintings “depict disintegrating houses, and small industrial buildings, that stand as monuments to their former communities.” However, she also composed figural works in her early career, including her 1986 work X on the Run. This painting is currently on display on the main floor of Old Main at Wayne State University, just outside the entrance to the Music Department, and alongside her painting from the same year, Marla. X on the Run depicts a woman standing within an unknown, olive green space. She appears to be observing Marla beside her with a curious expression. Spanning at 84 x 48 in, X on the Run possesses a monumental presence similar to what Mitchnick would produce in her more recent paintings of abandoned homes and industrial buildings. She employs heavy impasto throughout the whole composition, further emphasizing the portrait’s monumentality. The use of impasto also highlights Mitchnick’s use of multiple colors to build her forms. For instance, the woman’s skin is built up using layers of varying shades of beige and white. To add, Mitchnick inserts layers of red, blue, and gray into the woman’s primarily black outfit.  

In addition to the impasto and monumental scale of X on the Run, Mitchnick creates additional intrigue in the work through her choice of title. The title may propose a theme of escape for this painting. Mitchnick’s olive green background creates an ambiguous setting, but perhaps the woman in the work was running away from someone and stopped within this space to compose herself and strategize her next move. She looks to the side as though she is searching for refuge in another setting. While this is one way to interpret the story behind the title, the lack of detail in the background invites the viewer to explore endless possibilities. The speculation around the narrative of X on the Run is in turn consistent with what Mitchnick has asserted about the emotional component of her paintings: “Emotional content is always present but I don’t want to make it obvious.” The woman’s face and body language suggest that the story goes beyond the canvas, but Mitchnick does not spell that story out for us. The narrative of X on the Run appears to also be in dialogue with Marla, given the work's placement, scale, and nearly identical subject matter. Both works appear to show the same woman wearing the same black outfit. The paintings are not the same width but look to be the same height. While Mitchnick depicts a figure with a frontal body and side profile in X on the Run, Marla’s back is facing the viewer; Perhaps this is meant to position Marla as a continuation of the narrative that is introduced in X on the Run, in which the woman continues her escape.

Aside from any speculation one might have over the title, Mitchnick also appropriates the title and subject matter of the work from American painter John Singer Sargent's Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883-84). Madame Pierre Gautreau "was known in Paris for her artful appearance." Sargent chose to compose a portrait of her in the hopes of enhancing his own reputation as an artist. Unfortunately for him, this "portrait received more ridicule than praise" when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1884. Sargent decided to repaint "the shoulder strap and kept the work for over thirty years." He eventually sold the work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it currently is today. The woman in Mitchnick's X on the Run wears a black outfit and stands with her profile to the viewer, mimicking Madame X. Mitchnick also employs a more neutral background, similar to that of Sargent's portrait. While Sargent's work is highly naturalistic, with primarily smooth brushstrokes, Mitchnick emphasizes her brushstrokes with thick impasto. She renders her figure with naturalism but not to the same degree as Sargent. In doing so, she makes us aware of art as artifice, as opposed to reality; this was also a technique that the Impressionists, like Degas, utilized in their paintings as well. With the allusion to Sargent's Madame X in mind, perhaps Mitchnick's title suggests a break from tradition: a break from trying to adhere to the traditional, naturalistic works that were celebrated at the Salon during past centuries. 

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: https://wassermanprojects.com/nancy-mitchnick/





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