Dennis Lee Mitchell: Smoke Drawings
& Chinese Art Deco Posters: 1914 - 1935

Exhibition on view June 26 through August 3, 2019

The early 20th century saw an influx of international companies eager to break into the expansive Chinese market, selling textiles, tobacco, chemicals, insurance, and pharmaceuticals. The advertising poster, widely used in Western markets, became ubiquitous in China with the arrival of the West's most famous corporate names, such as British-American Tobacco, Standard Oil of New York (Mobil), Colgate Palmolive, and Eveready Batteries. From the early 1900s until the mid-1930s, commercial artists in Shanghai were hired to create vibrant lithograph posters to advertise this wide variety of newly available products for daily use, including batteries, cloth, cigarettes and soaps.

Stylistically, advertising posters drew on realistic representational techniques concurrently popular in Western art. The visual language of the posters was aspirational, most frequently depicting smiling women dressed in fashionable outfits and surrounded by natural beauty. Modern printmaking techniques, particularly innovations in lithography, allowed for wide distribution. Advertising poster imagery became ingrained in the visual culture of China’s major cities, and popular to the point that people would hang the posters on the walls of their homes.

Dennis Lee Mitchell captures elusive and ephemeral smoke on paper in his unconventional drawings. He applies acetylene torches directly to the surface of archival paper, creating rich brown-blacks and faint gradations left by moving smoke. The finished works require multiple preparatory drawings, as Mitchell attempts to chart the course of airborne solid and liquid particles. The resulting imagery evokes natural forms such as landscapes and plants, yet remains captivatingly abstract.

Mitchell holds an MFA in Ceramics from Arizona State University, and both an MA and a BA in Ceramics from Fort Hays Kansas State University. Mitchell is an emeritus Professor of Art at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. His work is held in public and private collections internationally, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City; the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; the Illinois State Art Museum, Chicago; the Racine Art Museum, Racine, Wisconsin.