When a painting provides an immersive experience it is immediately recognized as a successful effort. This strong painting’s constitution, its capacity for persuasion, has nothing whatever to do with dimensional size. It is easy enough to make a big painting, with its successes and failures written too large; equally so, it is simple enough for a painting to be demure, relying on smallness, hoping for some lapidarian appeal, bringing its viewer just close enough to expose its proposed revelation of talent. What makes the better of Leland Bell’s paintings captivating is their practicality and immediacy as they distribute seductive nuance in content and form. Bell’s painted imagery is rather matter-of-fact in its complexity.
In “Family Group with Butterfly” (1990) contour line and planes of color depend on the scaffolding of figural address. The light source cast into the frame is constant, and the resulting shadows are believable enough that an attentive viewer essentially feels themselves in the dining room with the three figures and airborne insect. The paced distribution of light and shadow adds to the kineticism of the scene. This is the case in spite of how volumetrically flat the architecture of the room, where the action is taking place, is rendered. There are no spatial voids depicted, save perhaps the white vertical behind the male figure’s right arm, which could indicate a threshold from one room to another. Depth of field is sacrificed for and replaced by aggressive architectonics that employ geometric shapes to build the composition. By this description, the painting could be deemed stiff, but it is full of motion and the eye follows satisfied.
Realism is not the point here. Bell fosters belief in the moments the painting captures and makes legible the emotional, intellectual tenor of his aesthetic. At once Bell methodically maintains distance from, while making technical investments in, the subjects and contents that fill the image. The picture is a family photo, a subversive psychological portrait of family life. Love exists embedded in the effort to deliver an everyday instant as monumental, but the artist’s affections and anxieties are rendered proportionally through the formal aspects of the painting. Any genre painting can attest to the enticing qualities of the everyday. I tend to think of Chardin as an artist among many to whom Bell owes a nod. Although, unlike Bell, Chardin’s better paintings are those without the physical presence of humans. There is in, say, Chardin’s “A Soup Tureen with Cat Stalking a Partridge and a Hare” (1728) an appreciation for the simplicities of domestic life that lends itself to subtle dramatization, making the commonplace grand.
Bell’s painting presents to us theater. The movement in the painting is choreographed. “Family Group with Butterfly” is literary, crisp, hieroglyphic. It shows an idiosyncratic cursive with ‘unfinished’ and illogical marks preserved or inserted that redouble his pleasure in, and concern for, the materiality of paint. Air, flesh, the right hand of the figure in the foreground reaching for the butterfly are a blur of unfinished anatomy. Upon closer looks this small punctuating space in the 5ft x 9ft expanse of the panel provides a complex reveal. The incision there exposes color and gesture. Bell probably avoided discussing ‘conceptual art.’ Finding ‘a subject in painting’ was likely, to his thinking, an amateurish exercise at best. He painted. If you want to paint, you paint. This point of view is as practical as it is romantic. Implicit in his outlook is that the artist’s life and art are the sum of their parts. Bell’s attitude is evident in his technique. The plain-spokenness that he brings to service a modest, sincere, art belies a vaster address to the human condition. The painting is not interested in flamboyance. It is not interested in changing the world as much as creating one in which its language can survive.
It is valuable to consider any painting’s unique properties, its self-contained character. Painting offers a number of available vocabularies coming from, established by, countless points of view. Informed by such variety, we can more freely compare sensibilities and appreciate differences. To choose two artists amid infinite possible binary examples in which to situate Bell, Martin Kippenberger and Antoni Tàpies can be examined as painters interested in the materiality of paint and painterly sensibility for sharply contrasting reasons. Kippenberger used painting, narcissistically, to appraise his personhood within the confines of an art world. His paintings are a direct, self-reflexive, diaristic record of his mortality. Tàpies’ paintings explicitly studied how Catalonian culture and personal myth were situated in his conception of the universal world. He too was multifarious in his practice. Tàpies, like Kippenberger, understood or, it could be said, acquiesced to larger movements in the art of his time. They each used the import of historical and material substance in painting in radically different ways, but at various points in their careers chose to rely on the formalist agreements painting dependably imparts. Bell’s unique brand of artistic integrity, given these examples, is clear. His limitations, be they self-imposed or not, are gratifying. We should expect dynamic, convincing expression from whatever form or genre we are viewing. Each of these artists did their best to achieve recognition not just by way of managing their creative habits but through a respectful attention to and belief in painting. Obviously, taste, judgment, and the viewing experience cannot be consistently measured by any scientific criteria. We have what the painter leaves us with. Optimally, we are left with feelings, sensations, thoughts handed to us by observation.
Bell holds an essentially anomalous position in what is now commonly considered ‘the contemporary.’ Where, exactly does t/his painting fit within the purview of the perpetually shifting ‘contemporary?’ Bell’s paintings are, among possible understandings, paintings by a person who just really loves and struggles with painting. His work, this specific work, is unapologetic in its indulgence in Painting’s history. It is an unashamed attempt to contribute a personal chronicle to that tradition. Bell died of cancer in 1991. Working in an era in which art was dominated by identity politics and laced with nihilism and irony, the moral position Bell took as a painter is admirable.