The stream of Trevor Bell’s exhibition title, Both Ends of the Stream, at the North Light Gallery, Yorkshire Technology Park is the Gulf Stream. At one end is the triangular outcrop of Western Cornwall, where Bell spent critical formative years at St Ives in the late 1950s, returning there to make his home in 1996; at the other end is Florida, where he lived for twenty-two years, honing the language of his painting under the impression of the bright light, huge spaces and liberating culture of the American south. The umbilical relationship of places far apart on the globe, the actuality of the space between them, and the physical, mental and spiritual energies required to close this space are what lie at the heart of all Bell’s recent work.
Bell is seventy this year, and this exhibition is a cause for celebration. It gives British audiences only their third opportunity since the artist’s stint as Gregory Fellow at Leeds came to an end in 1963 to see a large group of work from an extended period brought together. As with the two earlier shows—at Richard Demarco in 1970 and at the Whitechapel in 1973—the effect is stunning. Seventy-two works, comprising forty major canvases, twelve smaller ones and twenty works on paper, all made since 1990, line the walls of the North Light Gallery in a majestic parade of sumptuous colour harmonies and sophisticated, sensuous form.
Even at the time of the two earlier shows, Bell’s work was visibly diverging from the mainstream of British art, and the deeply engaged response to it on the part of a few serious critics (Patrick Heron wrote in Studio International in 1970 that Bell is ‘an infinitely greater painter in every way than Frank Stella’) inevitably took on the appearance of special pleading. It would be idle to pretend that in the last three decades the gap has done anything but widen further still. In the present climate of opinion in Britain, where the activity of painting tends to be taken seriously only when its agenda is to question the very premises of its existence, there seems little place for unreconstructed modernism. Bell, on the other hand, operates—naturally, in an unmistakable personal idiom—within the tradition of abstract expressionism. He continues systematically to espouse the shaped canvas, which he came to in the early 1960s as a means of liberating his subject matter from the formal constraints of the rectilinear stretcher, and which, in works such as the magnificent Zanskar River of 1992, he has brought to virtuosic pitch. He remains fundamentally concerned with pure colour and its integration across large flat surfaces; and he has colonised and re-invigorated a universal subject matter—landscape painting—which avoids any kind of participation in ‘the contemporary debate.’ He may well at this point be a Cornish artist; there are signs that the organisers of this exhibition cast him as a Yorkshire artist, and he fits the bill of global artist well enough. But he bears very little resemblance to a British one.
There must be doubts then, whether Bell has done the right thing in coming back to Britain at all, and this exhibition does not altogether dispel them. His most recent paintings, although the energy and discipline of the working process is as cogent as ever, nonetheless exude a sense of retrenchment. Their scale is smaller and their colour less flamboyant than the Florida paintings (more attuned, of course, to the sombreness of the Cornish terrain and light, but regrettable all the same, when the earlier work so amply demonstrates how richness and density of hue intensify the formal dynamic of the shaped canvas.) Moreover, Bell’s tendency to create in overlapping series seems to have become more pronounced and labyrinthine, diffusing the work’s innate sense of direction; and there are strong indications that he has recently chosen to explore particular shapes or formats a priori, for what they will generate, rather than allow the individual form of each painting to emerge with its—in the broadest sense—subject matter. The best of the Cornish works, such as Split, or Rains, which is one of the smallest canvases in the show, have a compressed power, a kind of angry containment which may be where Bell’s immediate future lies, but in some of the others there is the occasional feeling of emptiness—of the kind one might get looking at certain late Turners or, say, photographs by Ansel Adams.
The perspective of the Cornish work offered by the American paintings is distorted in this exhibition in two ways. First, the very earliest pictures (those which pre-date the series of Himalayan paintings of 1992-94, which were also made in the U.S.) do not entirely get across the essentially heroic character of much of Bell’s extremely large-scale and brilliant Florida work. (While, for example, it is good to have Night Sail and Late Rocker included, it is a pity that none of the magisterial multi-canvas Rockers, perhaps among Bell’s greatest achievements, is here.) Second, the hang treats the American and Cornish works very differently. The former sing out beautifully in two of the North Light Gallery’s three grand spaces; the latter—numerically too preponderant as they are—spill out of the third one into various lobbies and corridors, creating the impression that they are somehow less significant, more expendable.
To quibble, however, about the selection and the hang, or, as one might, the inaccessibility of the North Light Gallery; or even about the catalogue, which comes with a lucid introduction to Bell’s work by the show’s curator, Lynne Green, but is really rather slight, is to do an injustice to the courage of the organizers of this exhibition. The event itself is the thing, and for anyone interested in seeing a mature and assured contemporary painter working at the height of his powers, it is the real thing.
Alex Kidson is Curator for British Art at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. His essay originally appeared in The Burlington Magazine following the opening of Trevor Bell: Both Ends of the Stream, paintings 1990- 2000, Florida, Himalayas, Cornwall, 10 May - 8 July, North Light Gallery, Huddersfield.