Italian, business savvy, passionate and funny, John Bell is refreshingly honest about his art, possessing an authentic perspective on life that demands your attention. I sat down with Bell in his studio recently to learn about his upbringing and explore some ideas about what drives his creative process and how his art has evolved over the years.
Bell’s current exhibit at Nox Contemporary, Postmodern Blues, is his first solo show since July 2010. It is his 44th show overall, an impressive number that includes both solo and group shows, the first of which was a solo show in 2004 at the now defunct Chroma Gallery. The exhibit features twenty provocative works that explore postmodern ideas of culture, its demise and rebirth. The desire to explore meaning in a postmodern age streams through much of Bell’s work.
Growing up in Canton Ohio in a middle class Italian Catholic family, Bell was labeled a bit of a weirdo and an outcast, which nowadays creates a distinction of cool but back in the day, not so much. With Bell’s rich Italian roots it’s not surprising to learn he attended (and survived) Catholic school and served as an altar boy, who like the majority of altar boys, got caught drinking the sacramental wine one day. All kids draw during their formative years but there was something different going on with Bell. “From the age of five I was aware of my desire to create art. With the support and encouragement of my parents I was placed in private lessons with an accomplished painter, who was also my pediatrician.” Bell drew his first live (female) model at age eight and recalls with a smile the slight pink hue of his cheeks during the process. The lessons included such old school techniques as rubbing onions on canvases to prep them for paint, tangible hands-on experiences that encouraged the young Bell to create, instilling confidence and great passion that only grew and developed as time went on.
After graduating from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh with a degree in Visual Communications, Bell had a brief stint in the cut-throat world of advertising where he worked for a Cleveland agency as an art director. Bell describes this experience as “corporate hell” where he produced television commercials and print campaigns working 12 and 14 hour days. “All we did was work, striving to raise revenues. I completely rebelled against it and moved to Breckenridge, Colorado and became a ski bum.” While in Breckenridge Bell started a business with a friend but soon realized the ski bum lifestyle was a “primer for Betty Ford.” Soon after this realization, Bell left Breckenridge to spend some time in Mendocino California, a significant place for Bell who talks of how he found his center there during a time when he needed to understand who he was. “It all happened there and it became home to me.” Bell and his partner of sixteen years, Mary Fresques, make a point to visit Mendocino regularly.
Bell and his former Breckenridge business partner, John Worthington decided to move to Utah in 1992 and develop Huge Inc., an innovative apparel design company. Fast forward twenty years. Bell contemplates how the Utah art scene has changed since he arrived. “When I first started as an artist in Utah the scene was practically non-existent. Over the past twenty years I’ve seen it evolve quite a bit. Now in 2012 we have the Museum of Contemporary Art and progressive galleries such as Nox. There are lots of studio spaces, pockets and groups of artists all working together and trying new things. For a while I worked in a vacuum in my studio, focusing on getting out of Utah and exploring the national scene, hoping to bring a little of the national spotlight back here. But when I finally got out of my studio I started meeting other local artists such as Adam Bateman who were doing similar things here.”
Bell began his art career in a traditional sense, painting landscapes and portraits. It was not until the late 90’s, bored with the laborious nature of traditional painting, that he began to delve into abstract expressionism. “It was a natural transition for me, an act of breaking free.” After a couple of years of selling abstract expressionist work Bell realized a deeply felt desire for more. Bell’s ‘aha’ moment materialized shortly after buying a mid-century modern house in Emigration Canyon which he gutted and renovated. “At one point I was painting the walls and looking at these floods of ethereal light pouring down, set against the hard architectural lines and was blown away by the space.” This transcendental and cathartic experience prompted Bell to study modern architecture and explore philosophies and ideas about the very nature of space – what it is and how we process it. For Bell, space constitutes a non-tangible reality, something that doesn’t exist outside of that which contains it. By taking these ideas and applying them within his art, Bell began to juxtapose abstract lines and shapes in order to create the illusion of space. “Within my work, I began to think like a builder, someone who physically manipulates space to carve out a room thus creating kinetic qualities in my art.” Reigning in these ideas Bell discovered a new-found interest in pop art, geometric abstraction and surrealism.
The materialization of these ideas about space and Bell’s self discovery of postmodernism can best be explained through his ten year obsession with Kind of Blue, the renowned Miles Davis album and arguably the best jazz album of all time. Bell was compelled to paint the essence of this music—capturing the feeling it evokes when you’re listening. After many different approaches Bell determined that such a transcendental experience could best be created through spectator immersion and the experience of walking into and through art, experiencing compositional and spatial shifts. Essentially Bell created a physical manifestation of Kind of Blue with a group of paintings installed in a stage like setting consisting of a large wall panel and four seven foot tall four-dimensional paintings that loosely resembled actors on stage. As a result the spectator could literally walk into the painting and become fully engulfed by its essence, just like listening to a piece of music.
A musician himself, Bell is the first to admit his complete obsession with music, which takes on a vital part of his creative process in the studio. He calls it his “very first teacher, going back as far as I can remember and the quickest emotional conduit there is.” He talks about the memories that are attached to music, how “we project on it—get pulled out of a bad mood by it.” With taste that varies from classical, jazz and even occasional death metal, Bell finds himself channeling what he hears into his art vis-à-vis a stream of consciousness, unintentionally yet ultimately leading to multi- faceted, metaphysical wonders of artistic expression.
Bell has a sharp sense of humor and a contagious yet calming energy. “There’s no waiting around for divine inspiration in the studio, it’s just there — you feel it and act upon it and on it.” Bell lives this intuitive philosophy, channeling his feelings daily and incorporating them into his creative process, a very personal endeavor essential to his identity. “I make art for an audience of one, everyone else is a bonus.”
Writing is a key aspect of his process and an almost daily occurrence. “I find the way I create art is really about mixing up the process, using a rubber mallet as opposed to a brush creates a different thought process entirely and a different reaction” says Bell. At the heart of postmodern idealism lies the need to unlearn what we think we know. This “daily annihilation” and the act of creation and destruction is a notion that Bell embraces, stating his need to “move past, destroy or forget in order to get where you’re going. It’s not arbitrary but intentional and completely necessary.” Writing is just another extension of his creative process which you see on the floor of his studio and incorporated into many of his paintings, including several pieces under the title “Would you like to become a fan?” currently on display at Nox.
Language is essential to any process we have, unspoken or otherwise. Taking something that has been swirling in your mind abstractly and committing it to paper actualizes the abstraction, altering both the form and formation of the idea itself. In a similar way, the mutant shape of an idea commits a form to canvas through the act of painting. Bell readily admits he talks to himself frequently, an experience that he applied to Fresh Oil, a self-published chat book where the artist assumes the role of both interviewer and interviewee and through which Bell’s duality emerges. The book was published to promote Bell’s exhibit, Postmodern Blues and offers a glimpse into his psyche.
The concept for Postmodern Blues was born from the insatiable search for meaning through art, amidst a growing dystopian culture. “My subject matter is culture at large, our cultural values and how it’s getting more difficult to find meaning. The show is basically about these things and offers a glimpse into the process of my thinking, circle of influence, some of the literal space that is involved.” This is perhaps most obvious within the assemblage entitled “Muse Asylum,” which offers a portrayal of Bell’s studio practices over the course of the past eight years. Spent tubes of paint, hundreds of pills, bottle caps, free your mind references, a pair of paint splattered pants, a well worn armchair are all parts of this installation. Perhaps the most striking aspect are three of Bell’s earlier paintings that hang like carcasses from menacing meat hooks, representing the symbiotic forces of creation and destruction that mark and direct the artist’s journey.
If you missed the premiere of Postmodern Blues last month, there is a second opening on April 20th, which may even include a live performance by Bell. In September of this year, Bell will be creating an installation and doing a performance piece as part of a fundraiser for UMOCA. The concept for his performance piece is designed to blur the line between how art is experienced by the viewer and guaranteed to provoke and inspire.
Anne Cummings is co-owner of (a)perture — a Salt Lake based creative agency — a free-lance writer, curator and photographer who has always possessed a passion for narrative photography and has focused on social commentary that reflects the human condition.