Backwoods Interview – Alexander Mitchell

Backwoods Gallery, often referred to Australia’s best ‘street art’ gallery, sits in a quiet industrial back street of Collingwood (Victoria, Australia) at the end of a passageway just wide enough to fit a car. It is the stuff of art collectors’ dreams – regularly holding shows with artists from all over the globe.

Our man in Canberra, Damian Wardle, recently caught up with Backwoods Gallery driving force, Alexander Mitchell for an interview, here’s the latest word from the Melbourne studio.

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More jump off after the jump off…

Damian Wardle: Backwoods Gallery began in 2010 as a ‘small guerrilla operation’. How did it all come about? There can often be a lot to a name. Is this the case with Backwoods and your pigeon logo?

Alexander Mitchell: The Backwoods is our name for Collingwood. Calling the gallery Backwoods was a subversive a claim to the neighborhood. In 2010, Reka, Ghostpatrol, a few other artists and I had the opportunity to open the space, so we jumped on it. Until then I had been organizing exhibitions in pop up spaces, which was cool, but had its limitations. When we got the keys to the gallery we discovered a build-up of pigeon shit, thus the pigeon logo. The pigeon logo is always changing. The current pigeon was created by Hiroyasu Tsuri (TwoOne). Urchin Associates (the guys who founded Movember) are working on a new one at the moment.

DW: What is the philosophy of Backwoods, and how to you go about keeping this philosophy?

AM: This is a tough question. I should have an answer ready for it, but the truth is I don’t. There might not be any philosophy to Backwoods Gallery. I think the key thing about Backwoods is we’re an artist-run gallery. Most of the artists that we work with are intrinsic to the gallery behind the scenes and when international artists are exhibiting at Backwoods they usually just fall seamlessly into our little community. I think that’s the essence of the space. Also we take a lot of risks, which I think differentiates us from other galleries.

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DW: You have been referred to as Australia’s number one street art gallery. Do you think this is the case? How do you think you fit within the Australian art scene?

Maybe by default but not by design. A lot of our artists have a reputation for work on the streets but when they are working in the gallery we shouldn’t call them street artists. Street art is a misnomer, it’s vague and doesn’t demand anything from the quality and content of art other than it being slapped on a wall. There are much more constructive ways to view each artist and their work. Backwoods has ties to a lot of different scenes, but we try to live in a bubble. Being too much a part of one scene or another is a trap.

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DW: You are currently residing in France, running a gallery based in Melbourne. How does that work for you?

AM: Yes, I moved to France a year ago. At first there were some challenges but it’s worked out better than we expected. Being physically removed has given me a lot of objectivity. Sean Carroll runs the space better than I ever could and we’ve managed put a really great team together. I’m constantly online with Sean, so sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’ve left. If I could control a drone over IP it would be perfect – I’d be able to do everyone’s head in. Until then I’m just a brain in a jar.

DW: How did you become a curator? I believe you are also skilled artist yourself. Tell us more.

AM: In the early 2000s I was working as a designer and putting a lot of work up in the streets after hours. I was hanging out with guys like Reka, Sync, Sutu, Yok, Monkey and TwoOne. It was a great time. Nobody thought of themselves as an artist or had any ambition to be one, it was more about hanging out and contributing to an internal dialogue. What people now consider to be the “Melbourne scene“ is an echo of the energy and positivity of those early days. It was around this time that a lot of sleazy curators appeared and started organizing “street art” projects with the community. These guys not only misrepresented the scene but in my opinion they were actively limiting its potential. So in response, I started organizing projects of my own.

At first my projects were basic, but in time the processes improved and so did the scope. By the time we launched Backwoods Gallery I had opened 5 pop up galleries and produced over 30 shows. During this time I had also opened a shop called Rancho Notorious with Monkey. Rancho Notorious was one of the most wonderfully dysfunctional places in Melbourne’s history. Now that the gallery has gained some autonomy, I’ve been able to start thinking about my own art again. I’m starting an artist’s residency in Tokyo later this year which will kick it off.

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Ghostpatrol, TwoOne, Shida – Backwoods Gallery February 2014

DW: You are friends with and curate Australia’s best ‘street’ artists. Do you have an extensive personal collection, or do you just bask in the glory of the gallery each exhibition?

AM: Back in Melbourne I would sit in the gallery after hours and just take it in. Nothing makes you feel better than having a great show in your space. Most of the art in my personal collection were gifts, it’s not a big collection but it has a lot of sentimental value.

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Backwoods Gallery – Retrospective Show – February 2014.

DW: You have taken on the ambitious ‘A Study Of…’ exhibitions. This year’s study will be hair, following on from hands and eyes. What made you decide to undertake such a mammoth project over a decade?

AM: The goal of the ‘A Study Of’ project is to create an archive of studies by some of the best artists in the world. My hope is that it will be both a unique historical source as well as an inspiration for future artists. Until now all the studies have been on human anatomy, but the plan is that future shows will cover more abstract subjects. Mainly because I’m quickly running out of body parts.

The inspiration for the idea came from Flights of Icarus, an art book published by Roger Dean in the 80’s. I love that book and couldn’t understand why, with so many great artists available, there weren’t more well curated art books being published today. In ten years time the project will have created over 350 pieces of original artwork. Also because by then printed media will probably allow us to imbed interactivity, I’ve also been collecting a lot of video and recording interviews with artists. It’s a big project, but you can achieve anything if you give yourself enough time.

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‘A Study of Hands’ – photo courtesy Backwoods Gallery

DW: What can we expect from Backwoods Gallery this year, and into the future?

AM: 2014 is going to be another busy year, I think we have seventeen exhibitions booked in, including shows by TwoOne, Miso, James Reka, Fred Fowler, Shohei Otomo and Yuske Imai. 2015 will be a bit different. Right now we are really starting to consolidate the artists we represent and we are working on ways to develop bigger projects for them. 2015 will see less shows. However, we’ll be investing more energy and developing more satellite projects for each of them.

Backwoods Gallery is currently showing their Retrospective exhibition until 28 February. For a full roster of what’s coming up in 2014, check out their website:

www.backwoodsgallery.com