Lights for the derailment: On the paintings of Joni Mitchell

By: Juan Pablo Torres Muñiz


Joni Mitchell´s own statement: I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance.



These notes are on how much she truly derailed. This, by the way, leads me to the question about how many are the chances that an artist of Joni´s category could lose her track in any significant way by changing her means of expression, being the case, as it is, that she performs – saving some due distances – very well in both cases.
Her mastery of all these various ways – an exceptional capacity, conditioned to the fulfillment of her vocation – by submission to a specific sensibility: – a visual one.
She herself commented once that an admirer told her: you paint images in my head. These words, she said, were much flattering.
Joni Mitchell: paintings, photographs, songs; more… Her lyrics represent by themselves a valuable experience. How much respect from other experts as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen! Although her lyrics have not received the same kind of praise that the aforementioned, and Plant, Page, Pink Floyd members, Holdsworth, Mingus, Herbie Hancock, the Brecker brothers, and others, including classical musicians, have bestowed upon her rhythmic and melodic inventions –undoubtedly a major achievement–, they have been better appreciated than her paintings. The latter, nonetheless, are relevant, and more than as simple references.
It is hard to recognize – paying attention to the date of each one of her record´s production – if this or that painting, conceived more or less at the same period of this or that record, was previous or subsequent in time, even when it results obvious that the songs´ lyrics of the record in question speak of the same issues. This happens also when a painting of her has been used as the album cover, although one may logically think that the cover art is the ultimate work, whose purpose is merely the figurative representation of the previously completed recording. From the intertwining of both kinds of work, paintings and songs – a certain logic in the development of her unique discourse, which we’ll see, instead of derailment, has revealed, work by work, luminous angles to a deep understanding of her own evolution in time.
1968. Intense colors, forms defined by simple strokes. Often, gross lines. The search of a definition that goes yonder; of a spirit, by, from and inside the color. Melancholic airs, also; but, above all, the liveliness that comes from light, in different nuances, invading the canvas. The Red Period, in a way. Songs to a seagull was her first album: noteworthy, though it doesn’t attain altogether to mark a distance with respect to other contemporaries. This revelation of her inner world entailed a different set of methods, but only for the perception of receptive ears; her personal style barely makes a stance. The same as regards her paintings, which follow aesthetic patterns and the most typical features employed in certain images of that time, even for publicity purposes. None the less, the quality of her lyrics, her easiness for inventing poignant choruses, the innovations in guitar-playing were enough for paving the way; and, the next year, she could repeat the dose, albeit improved, with Clouds.
With the release of the legendary Blue, Joni tends to experiment more with photography. In these processed images – plays with perspective and voluminous objects in the foreground; their shadows are like a blanket, creating balance for the entire picture in weight and color, achieving, with this use of perspective, that which results obvious: depth; depth surging from the photographed image itself. These are images of people, in profile or viewed from behind.
This same exercise is going to be deployed in her paintings, in which, on the other hand, reflections and games with refraction will have a key role… An allusion to that which is deformed between the object and – the eye.
Again, men and women with vague faces… In her lyrics, there is a more complex outlook of sentimental affairs and other kind of relationships, of the shaping of one´s identity, by means of this playing with affections: reflection and refraction, now as transfer and counter-transfer processes, as it were. The times.
Left behind, the more elementary outlook of her precedent period.
Now, the lack of definition, far from putting in danger the painting´s balance, fills it with a dense mystery.
Deep exploration of the psyche and the emotional universe of the artist, to see – through her music: the exposure of her own insecurities before the audience. Joni reaches firmly high altitude with the trembling of her own pulse.
From and with the essence of Folk music, it passed through Rock´n Roll enriching itself with new rhythms and melodies, profiting also from the accompaniment of a prominent band of musicians, nimble enough for following her promptings.
Self-assurance gives way to acceleration… Velocity. Potency.
Midway in the 70s, Joni takes the giant step towards a kind of sound more difficult to be labeled in a specific genre, thanks – curiously – above all to her manner of exploring Jazz… her trackers got lost: the guidelines are in any case clearly established by the inspiration of an artist freed through the advantages of the widest and richest road of Fusion.
In her canvasses – abstract representations of bodies and faces which begin to take definite expressions, marks of temperament and emotional states, that illuminate, with the projection of tones, the entire composition. Abstract expressionism, too: colors in vibrating shape, time suspended in transcending processes.
Clearly how long she has gone from her starting point, that first conjecture, original exploration of her own insecurities which, in right time, gave way to the assurance of self-knowledge. Joni´s music reaches in this period the level of authentic experience, not only with its own character, but also tremendously original, defying.
In this decade there is a milestone, not only in Mitchell´s career but in the history of music. Hejira does appear, a work of art that can be described simply as unique.
Critics had already stated their surprise at her previous works, the way Joni adopted – guided by her instinct and preferences – certain elements that could be considered, by many, inadequate for her particular kind of sound, but that in the end resulted singularly brilliant within a frame too bigger to be comprehended using a label of genre or style. But Hejira, nonetheless, takes things even farther: complicated structures, sinuous melodies, plays of resonances of all kinds, telling stories of a torn intimacy… echoing inside us through the silences between chords… bringing us to ask, even today, how sure should feel an artist of her own discourse in order to produce a work of such characteristics.
I was driving across the burning desert.
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens, it was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.
The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture-post-card-charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
The visual character of her lyrics attains here a different kind of flair… 
No regrets, Coyote.
We just come from such different sets of circumstance.
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch.
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending,
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel…
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone, and the skin, and the eyes, and the lips you can get
And still feel so alone.
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay.
You’re not a, a hit and run driver, no, no,
Racing away.
You just picked up a hitcher,
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.
Exposed, as listeners, before the entrails of something – displayed facing upwards, projecting itself from its proper condition of an honest manifestation of that which causes pain, leaves a mark – the final character.
Fire, ice. A grimace without taunting spirit: the true expression of a personal historical condition. That which endures.
The album´s cover deserves a special consideration: a white and black photographic montage that manifests itself, a flight for which a complete preparation is not possible… (And we should refer to the album´s title: “Hejira” designates the passage of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina; a flight and, therefore, a deep kind of transformation beginning with a rupture… In Joni´s case it was about –again– a loving affair … And mourning).
(This record would deserve not only an entire post, but many sessions of guided listening. A different kind of sharing. Marvelous 52 minutes and 18 seconds.)
After that came Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus. For many, the best part of her musical corpus; for others, they’re powerful echoes, projections and ultimate explorations into the paths lain open by the previous record. Nonetheless, it remains clear that the latter, Mingus, is something – even within the variegated Mitchell´s works – special, unique.
She had chosen to play with extraordinary musicians, real masters in each one of their particular fields – Jaco Pastorius, amongst them, played a key-roll, also because of reasons that exceeds the purely musical–, had learnt from them, and also brought them into their best performances in her productions. But Mingus is much more than a tribute.
This unique and “beyond all other thing” experience established a starting point from where Joni Mitchell would contemplate all her previous works in perspective – to get more…


The 80s, – a change in the textures…, all of them. A hardening, maybe. Her voice –her artistic discourse–, already shaped, points without vacillation to roads that, when followed by other musicians, made them very easily look like lucky tributaries, in the best of cases.
As regards Joni, – in a kind of creative pause.
Accentuation of the features of her earlier works. Of their thematic – farther in the process of exposure of her affections, now with an evident quote of cynicism, though without pedantry. Firmness in her walking, so to say, in her own right – alone. Momentum in the montage/performance, a harsh projection, ready to reach deep, sharply, in – the other one.
Wild things run fast and Dog eat dog
These albums´ covers show a tendency that is patent also in her paintings: Joni herself, stripped nude (figuratively speaking) through the expression of her face, her posture and moving attitude, also through the objects around her: everyday´s things, color and shadow for the clamor´s echoes.
Again, a defying depth.
Other works of these years encumbered with details that were clearly avoided in earlier ones. A consequence of her recent empowerment, for sure.


The 90s. Joni´s paintings… more complex, both in the fields of expressionism and abstract realism, but maybe even with a greater emphasis – considering as it should be the specific background – in her landscapes and self-portraits; the most famous of the latter belongs precisely to this period.
The “visual” Mitchell achieves consistency in repetition – which doesn´t mean redundancy – and this produce certain results also in her musical work.
After 2000, new paintings added to a reckoning of perspectives – I insist – by an artist with a firmer brush… On the other hand, Turbulent Indigo, released in 1996, was her last record with new material… until 2007, when she comes back with Shine; in between, Joni recorded only two albums… with new versions of her greatest hits: Both sides now and Travelog. The latter was then announced as the last one of her career.
A false plenitude peeks, maybe. Conflict being, as always, the source.


A year before her real last album, Joni produced a extensive series of works based on photography: negatives playing with green color, composing an aggregate of incomplete impressions, deformed figures expecting the arrival of pure light or color that could unveil their more complex form in reality, and the simplicity without riddles of the frozen facts captured in each shot.
It seems an involuntary announce of that which would arrive in the sounds´… and lyrics´ fields.
Her passage from the improvement of her realist paintings´ technique to photography… by which, nonetheless, she intends to show something that, by means of pure color, results not sufficient… And so…
Well, maybe a defeat. And, fortunately, because of that, a new record was released, against her own statement at the start of the century… that she would not produce any more music, that she, in fact, hated music
There were lyrics and live time in movement, flowing architecture –paraphrasing her: a new voice for clarifying, maybe, that which remained outside her images, at least those that she was able to shape in canvass and paper.
Maybe. But it is more certain that Shine was… is, precisely and simply, the light that those photographic negatives of her last exposure lacked.
A great record.
In any case, thanks, Joni, for all.
(What is it. From what.
Erring, exploring. Finding (oneself).
Before that, searching, and failing first, appealing to the other one. Then, learning to see in him. To see. Without expecting a reflection.
Getting older,
Without albeits,
(Translation, by Roberto Zeballos Rebaza)



  1. Amazing work. Amazing text and vision. Nice work, guys!

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