Last month, the Frye held the second episode of its Frye Salon series, featuring the work of Mark Mitchell, titled BURIAL. Mitchell created intricate burial garments specifically tailored for nine muses—close friends and colleagues who have had a significant impact on his life and work, as well as individuals he admired for their unique aesthetics.
On the night of the opening, I was too overwhelmed to actually examine the garments closely. Not including the advance crowd of VIPs, an expected eight hundred other guests were circulated through the main gallery space, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by the crowd, who walked respectfully and pensively among the nine muses lying in their white garments on mirrors. Looking upon these figures in repose, one might see oneself or other faces peering back up alongside the flowing silk and wool—sublime. Many in attendance were overcome to the point of tears. I was one of them.
That is the most basic description of the presentation, but in order to truly capture what happened I must break the fourth wall and give a personal account of the night. I shy away from such accounts—especially autobiography—but there is no avoiding it if one writes in earnest when what was on display here goes far beyond the work of one artist and necessarily involves the viewer in such a personal way. What happened at the Frye is indicative of a much larger movement within our city—and I hope within the arts worldwide.
During the opening statements in the Frye auditorium, the Frye’s director JoAnne Birnie Danzker acknowledged the presence of representatives from other institutions, collaborators and gallerists whose combined efforts made the night possible. I couldn’t understand why at the time, but these opening statements felt genuinely warm and meaningful in a way uncharacteristic of the usual litany of colleagues and sponsors. Birnie Danzker spoke with such kindness and gratitude that, though she acknowledged many specific individuals, all present were included in a sense of fellowship. This straightforward ease was evident in all who spoke during the introductions.
It occurred to me while waiting to enter the exhibition space that all who had spoken did so with the authenticity of one who knows that any word might be one’s last, that the most exquisite use of one’s breath is to express gratitude. I had my first experience of this mortal, heartfelt frankness when I volunteered at a hospice facility as a teen. At that point in my life, I had already lost several friends and relatives, but I was only then beginning to seriously question the devout, fundamentalist Christian faith in which I had been reared and in which the afterlife was the ultimate dogma. I apostatized not long after, and those conversations I had with people at the brink of death were illuminating as I began to confront the finality of a death with nothing beyond it. This annihilation is as humbling and—in my opinion—even more joyful than concepts of an afterlife where all dwell in a fixed state of adoration, or despair and perdition. No matter what one believes, the confrontation of the end of life should bring ones focus to the present, to the undying question, “How shall we live?” Moments like the one presented by the Frye answer that with such affirmative compassion, without prescribing a dogmatic path.
To the contrary, Mitchell’s ensembles present archetypes that celebrate human variety and unity, larger roles that each person may occupy at some point in a life or may come to exemplify. Modernity has offered many ways of categorizing personalities—from the Enneagram system to Myers-Briggs—and of course horoscopy has its own interpretations of types, but the former are a method of analysis and categorization based largely on how one interacts socially while the latter is a matter of abstract guidelines based on perceived cosmic forces. Both allow for fluctuation, and neither really ascribe a sense of purpose to one’s qualities. More generally, people identify themselves based on what they do for money, but this is extremely changeable, especially in an age when entire fields of work regularly become obsolete or so specialized one feels more mechanical than human. Existential gulfs that were once most encountered in grappling with belief and faith—the dark night of the soul, the death of a sacred figure or king—can now be opened by a pink slip.
Art illuminates our connectedness through our plurality. It at once admits that we are all small parts of a larger body or story and also defends us from the cynicism—which is itself a form of fear—that we are all expendable and without real purpose. In our age, so much of the world is built on images that are specifically designed to foster a sense of inadequacy and competition to assert one’s individuality through possessing and consuming, and perhaps no creative field is as guilty of this as fashion. The fine art market does it, too, but it is cloistered and exclusive to the point of unattainability for most people—and that sense of pricelessness may even deter them from visiting a free museum like The Frye. It is bittersweet to recognize that this exhibit in this venue quietly but boldly turns those consumeristic notions on their heads, but many will not know how to encounter it because those false and destructive expectations set by the outside market are so pervasive.
To change those expectations, one must begin with exhibits like this in venues like the Frye which are so active in reaching out to the surrounding community, working with living artists while preserving and presenting the older works in their collection. Presenting them in the same space further creates connections between the past and present, the living and the dead, and therefore respect and peace.
But is this not a little macabre and perhaps self-indulgent, to create such exquisite garments to be sealed away to decay out of sight? I don’t think so, but I will say that such an object is deeply iconoclastic. It avoids the marmoreal sculptures and reliquaries of tradition, while also defying the rank utilitarianism that has become modern orthodoxy. The idea of creating something so exquisite to be treated as ephemeral—for one who is already dead and gone, no less!—will seem wasteful, vain and preposterous to some. Unlike burial plots and coffins—also extravagant, but far less eco-friendly—there isn’t even place for one’s relatives to put off visiting. There is only a carefully crafted object that the elements will undo—which is, in fact, an apt allegory for a life well-lived. As much as there may exist around us a culture of wastefulness and disposability, the opposite and equal reaction that would preserve all things unto perpetuity also gets us nowhere fast. Things must change and come to an end, and Mitchell’s use of natural materials that will decay and return to the earth with the body respect the natural order while also honoring that we are more than just the brute matter or even our genetic code. We are a sum of a life of experiences and influences by those close to us, and to create these burial garments honors the dead and the living at once through a labor of love and imagination without enforcing a dismal attachment to what has passed.
The memento mori is an ancient but inexhaustible trope, and artists have approached it in more or less grim ways over the centuries. Today, the grotesque and gratuitous visions of death one sees in pop culture and some fine art are so cartoonish that no real reckoning of its nature occurs. However, there are many exceptions in art, and a healthy reckoning of mortality seems to be of growing interest among artists in Seattle. The seed for Mark Mitchell’s BURIAL exhibition was planted when artist Greg Lundgren invited him and other artists to create unorthodox vessels for human remains. Mitchell created a “Soft Urn” sewn from many layers of diaphanous material, which can be thrown into the sea and safely biodegrade. These garments take that concept and bring it into human proportions while adding narrative.
In defense of both art and fashion, I must reiterate that it is a market culture and consumeristic ethos that has infected these pursuits. In no way are fashion and art inherently exclusive to the wealthy and powerful; they are available to all and if, in fact, we all attempted them on our own we might do amazing things and gain new respect for each other and created objects of all kinds. Mitchell and his talented sewing team—including Tristan Uhl, Monica Leigh and Vlasta Schutzenhofer—hand stitched every seam and every ruffle, employing classic techniques, akin to true couture clothing. It is worth noting, too, that Haute Couture collections often center around a (generally impractical) statement piece that reveals the vision and direction for the entire collection—the Platonic ideal from which springs all the other garments, which in all cases tell a story about the wearer. In this case, each of the nine garments presents an archetypal figure, something beyond narrative, bordering myth. The connections with high fashion remain strong, but with the intention and presentation of the works, the pieces take on the layered meaning and higher function of art.
The pieces can thus be interpreted myriad ways on their own and also in relation to each other and the paintings on the walls, based on their staging in the gallery. I leave that open to each viewer, as one of the reasons why an archetypal approach is superior to a classification system of personalities is that the latter only seeks to classify and contain things within itself whereas the former reveals more of the individual in question by alluding to motivations and conations that are otherwise hidden. Wordsworth said that a portrait reveals a person as they always were, not as they are in the moment of its painting. These garments may do the same, revealing an essential quality or role that one is meant to play.
I therefore offer potential archetypal views of each ensemble. Though these pieces were made by Mitchell according to the character of each of the nine muses he selected among his friends and community, his reasons are his own and I do not present my interpretations as authoritative insights into the persons who wore them. As it is, I spent most of my time with these garments as they are now displayed in the gallery. (I was too teary to look at hem while they were being worn.) Instead, I am offering these archetypes as a starting point for those who may walk into a gallery space and feel intimidated or at a loss. I have some confidence that I will get fairly close to Mitchell’s own vision in some cases, as during a gallery tour I was able to hear his inspirations for two pieces and learned they were precisely in line with the archetypes I had already ascribed to them. As I said afterwards: Score one for the anima mundi.
It is also worth noting that the exhibit presented a sort of balance of feminine and masculine figures, but Mitchell and many of his models are strongly motivated by explorations of androgyny and the transcendence of gender, as has been typical of artists and shamans since time immemorial. Hence, I would impress upon any audience to view these pieces with neutrality toward sex and recognize each person and archetype as what they are first and foremost: Human.
The Artist: Anna
At the southwest corner by one entrance to the gallery is the ensemble created for artist and fashion designer Anna Rose Telcs. Anna is an appropriate herald for the show (and looked much like a herald angel lying on her mirror on opening night), as her own work is sympathetic with Mitchell’s, using natural materials and traditional methods to create wearable art. The presentation of her own Aesthetic Dowsing project at the Henry earlier this year was a peak experience for me, and this would be another.
This design has a gentility and purity paired with sleek lines and function. The embroidery evokes musical instruments and its tight tailoring allow for and would not intrude upon the craft of the person wearing it. It is an ensemble that allows for creative function and craft while also evoking the abstract beauty of the mind itself, the purity of will and devotion, voice and vision that makes the artistic figure something to which many aspire. Such purity in material terms might be equated with chastity, and indeed there is a virginal, maidenly air to this piece. In light of how artistic (and even scientific and religious) devotion is often ascribed to a sublimation of the erotic, this “virginal” aspect should not be overlooked, nor should it be held up for its gendered and antiquated associations. It should instead be recognized as a spiritual purity, regardless of material experience. This garment is made for one who inspires others to create for themselves, uniting the world of ideas with physical reality.
The Noble: Ro
The stately kimono-style jacket with sleek trousers creates a noble silhouette indeed, but the softer, less practical details really round out a larger vision for the archetype of a born leader. Rather than wielding a sword, the trailing, transparent sleeves hint at a soft but extensive influence. The tight and controlled front is offset by a cloud of ruffles on the back. A born leader will know how to present an earnest face while maintaining their softness—compassion and complexity and playfulness. It certainly makes it easier to sleep at night when one has a soft side at one’s back.
These are all rather literal observations, but they are not frivolous. The Noble archetype balances an ability to inspire unity in others with the charisma that might allow for tyranny. With feet firmly planted in the material reality of order and leadership, the Noble maintains a steady vision for what comes next, in a way that seeks to include all in whatever part they can play, not cull what is unnecessary or weak. The fight is ultimately for all to be honored in their own way, and so the Noble embodies the honor and dignity of all to all.
The Warrior: Maikoiyo
The material order that the Noble maintains and the Artist occupies to inspire visions beyond brute reality still must be hard won, as brute reality is difficult, dangerous and unforgiving. The Warrior exists to preserve all against threat, and this ensemble beautifully captures both the valor and solitude of this role. The Warrior is unique in the room in that it does not face an entrance or any other figure. The drawn hood leaves nothing exposed to one entering the room, and circling it reveals a mannequin without a face at all—an eloquent expression of stoicism. Unlike many figures, the Warrior ensemble is also ungloved, allowing for dexterity and direct contact. The cloth mail and embroidered insignia beneath its coat alludes allude to protection…an exchange of chain and metal for cloth now that the need for protection is symbolic only as the deceased returns to the elements.
In an age and culture that idolizes hypermasculinity and a soldierly view of the world, the figure of the Warrior is not so much a protest as it is a reminder that the role of the soldier can be a lonely one, indeed. Some are fit for it; others are not, and it is therefore dangerous to glamorize it as the paragon of the species. Here, the Warrior maintains equal dignity with other roles while acknowledging that battle is often far more sad than glorious—whether it is against wild animals, invading forces, or even against disease and discrimination. Though the latter two examples are not often a physical battle, the valor and dedication and desire to protect others is the driving force, and that is how one might identify a Warrior among us—not their arsenal, but their passion.
The Fool: Marc
The second and only other figure without a face is the shape-shifting Fool. When I say Fool, I allude to the Fool of the Tarot, the Pierrot of Commedia dell’Arte and the harlequins and jesters of ancient courts, whose genuine or feigned ignorance might reveal profound wisdom—or at least an important dash of common sense. The pompom toes of the shoes and puffed embellishments on the puffer coat give the outfit a warmth and whimsy unlike the previous three. The knitted veil, however, gives the figure an air of mystery, mischief and trickery. The dark side of the performing Fool is that one can be lured into a false sense of security that can be exploited. Let it never be said that these archetypes are unambiguously good, for each one has perils that must be overcome.
Marc Kenison, the muse of this piece is perhaps best known for his genderbending burlesque persona, Waxie Moon, but even without knowing this, the androgynous and the uncanny can be perceived—in a way that is in fact quite different from Kenison’s usual lean but frilled silhouette. The Fool might shift between personae, maintaining a sense of naivete and wonder in each incarnation that allows for a genuinely playful performance or exploration of what it means to be someone else. The Fool is thus capable of boundless compassion, but may hide behind many of these roles, remaining an uncovered enigma throughout his or her life. Their role is foremost to make us evaluate the rules and dogma around us and our own roles and habits as their performance holds a mirror to our eyes—perhaps a funhouse mirror, but a mirror nonetheless.
The Poet: Dominic
Poetry preceded fiction and remains perhaps the pure soul of a language, salvaging it from the quotidian utterances of value and use and propaganda. Indeed, the poet is something of a forager—of experience and meaning—at once receptive to nature but eager to abstract and refine it, much like the Artist, who stands on the opposite end of the gallery. There is a forager aesthetic to this layered ensemble, down to the leaves beneath the soles of the lavender leather shoes. The ruffled jacket combines wilderness and town, further asserted by the civilized cravatte around the neck. Like the other two archetypes in a row by the north wall (The Warrior and Fool), The Poet is confrontational figure. Rather than confronting hostile forces or the inertia of rules and appearances, the Poet confronts our very modes of thought—our language, the architecture of thought. The poet draws from all that is intelligible to reveal and evoke the ineffable feelings and reactions behind it.
The ensemble fits such a gentle, introspective soul who may spend equal time quietly communing with surroundings and sitting over a desk, trying to find the expressions to link the senses. It is worth noting that the literalism of our age has made poetry more of a pariah practice than ever, something recondite and self-indulgent. There is plenty of bad poetry out there, but the best has always challenged literalism, reasserting the symbolic power of a language that we to often take to be an a priori thing, which if treated as such hardens one’s thoughts, then one’s beliefs, then one’s heart.
The Priestess: Davora
The Priestess faces the Noble, a complementary figure of grace and authority. Whereas the latter focuses on laws and boundaries and more material consequences of action, the Priestess reminds and instructs one on the unwritten and universal laws of human affairs. Aquinas and others (though they often take it to the place of dogma and abysmal interpretations of “Natural Law”) argue effectively that the laws and rules of society follow from these broader laws, whose uniting forces are passion and compassion, justice and forgiveness. The Priestess figure is not necessarily one who is religious, but rather one who intuitively understands these laws and has the ability to guide others toward greater peace and unity by illuminating the common good of others.
Like so much religious and ceremonial garb (and architecture), the grandeur of the Priestess’ ensemble should not be viewed as a statement of superiority, but of grandeur itself made incarnate in humans. That is, the higher forces and order that exists beyond humanity, beyond our planet and the reach of our telescopes, is something yet perceived and appreciated through human humility. It is in that state of humility that joy and empathy are most possible. Some figures in their abundant goodwill and generosity are able to inspire this awe and grace in others, even in their nakedness. This dress is for them.
The Naturalist: Rhonda
Opposite the Warrior stands the Naturalist, who rather than confronting the hostile forces of nature binds and attains a mutual nurturing with it. Such a figure is more than a green thumb. He or she has an intuitive understanding of our connection to the earth and our environment, whether it is natural or constructed. Draped head to toe in a robe and cowl of woven net—evoking a network of roots, a mycelial mat, any number of vegetative forms beyond its metaphor of connectedness—the Naturalist’s very hands sprout soft, white flowers. The piece is strangely elegant despite the generosity of the folds that hang about the neck. The simplicity of the tied cord at the waist adds to a sense of understatement despite the snaring complexity of the robe, which—I think not incidentally—is of the same weave as the mail of the Warrior. And like the mail, there is nothing practical or durable about this garment, and it is certainly the last thing one would want to wear while gardening in thickets and groves full of twigs just ready to snag the myriad loops. As with every other piece, the concept prevails over functionality—not that there will be much to snag in the grave. Indeed, the allusion to roots and growth make this a beautifully conceived shroud under any circumstance.
In an age when our interface with the wilderness and even agriculture is extremely limited, the idea of one who co-exists with nature in grace and earnestness might seem overly quaint or atavistic. I struggled to even come up with a term for such a person, and Naturalist was the best I could do. (I’m not happy with it.) The truth is, not all that long ago the majority of humans were still living quite close to nature and in other countries many still do. The false dichotomy of man and nature has long existed, but has been thrown into stark contrast by industrialization. At this point, the figure posed as the Naturalist archetype has the hardest battle of all, perhaps: To reassert that in spite of our grand ideas and our collective potency as a species, we are still physical forms of a planet that is therefore as deserving of respect—from dust, to dust.
The Diva: Kook
The matronly Diva stands across from the Fool, a complement to the explosive creator of spectacles and diversions. Unlike the Fools shifting personae, the Diva is an anchor, a solid force that commands attention, creating unity around herself (or himself). Like a baroque obelisk, the Diva is a natural matriarch or patriarch not because they are vested with true authority over affairs or can rally troops or see the mysteries of the universe. The Diva is a force unto itself, a touchstone for those who surround him or her. Naturally, this tends to inspire a performative, exaggerated or burlesque air about the Diva, whose sphere of influence is like a micro-kingdom. This might even make the Diva look at times ridiculous or foolish in his or her own right, but humans need these players, the unwitting or witting masters of camp and pomp.
As if to make the point further, the Diva is topped with one of only two hats in the collection: a floppy, lavender cap. Somewhere between a tattered turban and a swimming cap, the Diva is crowned, indeed, with a sense of humor. But it’s still a crown, and don’t you forget it.
The Child: Sailor Hank
At the center of all things is the Child, representing all potential, all playfulness and wonder. Androgynous and capped with animal ears, naive to its somewhat feral nature, the unsophisticated Child is an acknowledgement of the human animal in its undifferentiated state of dignity. It is an object of wonder, which all other figures encircle, which the protean Fool and the stolid Diva admire equally, which the Priestess and the Noble look over with care as the hope of all human endeavor in the face of conflict—the carrying of the torch.
The Child is carrying here not a torch but a pouch. Inside is a ball and doll. Despite being typical toys, these are both loaded objects: the homunculus and self; the world and the sphere, symbol of perfection and unity in itself. There are some who will always be a child at heart, no matter how old they get, no matter how late they pass away. In all of us, one may hope there is something of a child that persists—that undifferentiated force that allows us to change, to never become too rigid, to cease to live before we die. So much of our best actions and intentions will go to preserve that part of us, for ourselves and for others. In spite of being burial garments, like all of the best meditations on death, Mark Mitchell’s BURIAL exhibit becomes a meditation on why we live. And that is what it takes to get us to answer how we shall live—and live on.
All photography by Christopher Reicks