Detroit painter Nancy Mitchnick goes her own way

There’s an element of surprise in encountering Nancy Mitchnick’s large-scale representational paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

The Detroit-born Mitchnick, 69, works in a traditional mode of expression far removed from the au courant mediums that MOCAD typically showcases — conceptual art, installation, video, hybrid forms and the like. The more than 25 paintings in “Nancy Mitchnick: Uncalibrated” also remind you that there’s more to Detroit art than the gritty work so often associated with the city — like those made from found objects or rooted in the city’s post-industrial decline.

Mitchnick is after different game. The paintings at MOCAD depict urban houses, garages, landscapes, portraits and still lifes. They do not come with a gloss of aesthetic theory or laden with references to globalism, identity politics or social justice. What you see is what you get, but what you get is by no means simple or regressive. She traffics in subtlety. Mitchnick whispers rather than shouts.

A painting like “Big Burn” (2016), for example, shows a gently sunlit and shadowed Detroit house that’s been gutted by fire. It revels in the refined emotions and exquisite pleasures that oil paint on canvas can uniquely evoke in a viewer. Colored rectangles and rhythmic brushstrokes add a charge of abstract muscle and excitement to the surface beauty. Rather than provide the numbing comfort of ruin porn, the painting pulsates with quiet desperation and feeling. Mitchnick is a gifted painter technically, but there’s a lot more going on here than merely craftwork.

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