“There is a close nexus between the power of abstraction and the creative capacity for de- differentiating (dispersing) the concreteness of surface thinking. Modern art and modern science have both achieved very high degrees of abstrac- tion. This alone, if it were at all necessary, proves the supreme mental health of our civilization.” 1
Trevor Bell’s abstraction has much in common with the ideas of his friend Ehrenzweig. And Bell does exhibit a syncretistic capacity to comprehend the total structure of his paintings rather than merely element by element. His work transcends simple formal concerns, and approaches a universal content.
This retrospective gives the viewer the opportunity to imbibe Bell’s career development, to compare the early nautical and geographic themes to more recent work engaging spiritual philosophy, metaphoric reference, and bold color usage. Thoughtfully composed geometries have been evident for many years in his work. Compared to art world talk of cool geometric abstraction, Bell’s canvases project the tropical heat of his resident state of Florida and his favorite travel destiny—the Indian subcontinent. As for the creative process of his painting, Bell works in a non-linear fashion—a wheel-like method that marries subject and procedure-transforming reality.
“The basic archetypal image of this creatively transformed reality of the world is the selfcontained rolling wheel of eternity, every single point of which is a ‘turning point,’ that ‘often concludes with the beginning and starts with the end’.” 2 Bell’s vision is at once carefully considered and spontaneous. He produces scores of sketches which serve as notes on ideas, but these are warmups rather than blueprints. Again Ehrenzweig has said, “Keeping the final realization of an idea wide open allows the artist to engage the whole range of his sensibilities and his whole personality while he struggles with a flexible and informed vision.” 3 In this way, Bell’s oeuvre conjoins structure and instinct. His work conveys his process of communion and communication that pervades his created world, that the external world speaks to him, and a spiritual message permeates his life and his painting
On one hand, Bell would agree with Schopenhauer, in that art serves as a metaphysical window through which we may view the deeper realities. On the other, Bell’s paintings aggressively arrest the external viewing space and not only project inwardly, but out- wardly to his audience at the same time. Bell would concur with Satish Gujral as well on the difference between religion and art: the first converts, the second liberates.4 Bell’s canvases liberate ideas that transcend East and West, the material and the numinous worlds, and the polarity of outward and inward. They both create and destroy.
“The artist...is both destroyer and creator. His is a dual and contradictory role. He destroys by creating a new order and a new realm of experience. That is, the new causes the historicity of the old. The reality of contemporary art is not to be found in its themes figurative or abstract but in the visual validity of the works of art themselves.” 5 Bell’s destruction is a conflagration of the mind, done in by the colors of a fiery palette. Thus pure impressions get through, often unfiltered by the intellect. His imagination utilizes transformal elements (color, shape, scale into the unities and dualities of balance.) Balance is more than a rocker shape on an arc; more than interpenetrating forms within the painting’s field; more than top heavy or bottom heavy visual weight. It is a balance of active realms of the imagination. “Imagination is preservative as well as transformative. Meditating between Being and Becoming, it is akin to the knower of the field which is spoken of in Gita and identified as Self.” 6
How does all of this result in Bell’s images? He doesn’t force these concepts up front to his consciousness when working. They simply inform his sensibility. Gerhard Richter calls this “unashamedness.” 7 To Bell it is a mor- al commitment: a pursuit of truth. This is not a passive, laid back acceptance of life’s events. Nor is it a flailing against difficulties. It is a subtle flowing as emotional drama, sometimes as amplification of an otherwise over- looked important detail of existence. It is no mistake that Bell’s colors construe earth, sky, water, and fire. This places the work between the alchemical and the metaphysical, and squarely within the boundaries of the poetic and metaphoric.
Hilma af Klint died in 1944. She was unwilling to show her spiritual paintings during her lifetime. She stipulated in her will that her more than one thousand paintings should be kept together and shown toward the end of this century when the public would at last be responsive.8 This is now happening. It is likewise intriguing that response to Bell’s work has steadily increased. It is up to the artist to maintain his vision, and let the fashions of the art world swing around to where he is.
With regard to the mandala forms of color, Bell has done for red and blue what Ad Reinhardt has done for black or what Malevich has done for white. A recent series, for example, contains Two Forms (1988), Counterpoint (1988), and Form on Form (Red) (1988) all representative works of ongoing themes. Two Forms is a separated diptych. As reference to primordial power, one could look to the stones of prehistoric Avebury for its inspiration. The duality of skewed repetition is a metaphorically possible affinity as well. The close proximity of the two parts engages the wall behind as an element of tension. A certain grinding (of limited ego?) is therefore implied. Amorphous field coloration adds to the interpretive possibilities, however open ended, while ribbons of red and blue heat loosely mimic circumferential shape.
If Two Forms produced tension by proximity of parts, Counterpoint develops compression by visual overlap. The sweep of a hot ribbon on each countered-part defines the circularity and sphericality of these forms. This optimistically recalls Pascal, “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” or perhaps Aristotle, “What is eternal is circular, and what is circular is eternal.”9 Form on Form (Red) describes a moment in time—a so-called “Zen moment.” “But then, the “Zen moment” reveals the universe as being full of infinite potentialities—infinite occasions for interest.”10 The moment captured is not a stable one, for Form on Form (Red) is a study of vectored torque, impending motion, and imminent acceleration. Rocker or pendulous movement should follow when a large mass is subsumed by an arc-as-fulcrum.
This concept is not new to Trevor Bell. In the late 60s and early 70s, Bell was producing subulate canvases with strong downwardly penetrating qualities. Ocala (1973) and Keel (1967) are such works. Even Oner (1967), and to a lesser degree Wight (1968), exhibit inherent instability with heavy visual weight resting on a fine point. Along with the more obvious nautical references, these works inform a certain Tantric mien. “A yantra is very often referred to as an energy pattern or a power-diagram. As images of primal energy, yantras reveal the varying scales of reality which denote cosmos, infinity, time, space, or the play of polarities.”11 The triangle or trikona represents the three guna (three worlds): neutral, positive, and negative. A triangle with apex pointing downward represents the yoni or female organ, the seat of female energy. This corresponds with Bell’s nautical titles (Keel, for example) which are engendered as “vessels.”
In a more overt and more recent allusion to Indian spirituality, Bell has embarked on a bold series of referential abstractions. Lingam (1986) makes the most direct connection. The lingam is the phallus, representing all-pervading space “in which the whole universe is in the process of formation and dissolution... Through successive stages of the transformation of matter and its reduction to its absolute essence, the Tantric artist’s first concern is to bring out the hidden universality of basic forms.”12 Bell’s canvas depicts the central lingam surrounded by fiery orange. The heat of passion and transformation is framed on three sides by blue bars. This trinity again alludes to universality beyond abstraction.
Other paintings in this recent series embody trapezoid shapes in a series of “gates”: Space Gate (1984), Temple Gate (1985), and Small Temple Gate (1987). In each case, eye-stopping reds, blues, and oranges surround an “entrance.” A remarkable affinity to these works and a link between Bell’s Eastern and Western thought is Chun Quoit, near Morvah in Cornwall, in Bell’s native England. It is a closed dolmen or “table-like form of four giant slabs of stone topped by a still larger ‘capstone’ placed as a tomb in Neolithic times, but still in position.”13 Its proportion, scale, and form is strikingly similar to Trevor Bell’s temple gates. These gates are Bell’s most metaphoric works. The gate is a threshold, a place where the living essence (or “rasa”) can flow and the transformative point where an individual could attain final release, or “mukti.”14
Like predecessors Light Trap (1981), or Counterchange (1982), the more recent gate series makes architectural implications. After all, in Vedic times, Indian architecture served as a model for the cosmos, and buildings (and temples) were generated by magic diagrams called Vastu-Purusha Mandalas.15 It would not be farfetched to consider these trapezoidal paintings as abstracted mandalas. This would fit within a relational theory of consciousness. “The relational theory of consciousness states that in order to see a thing ‘truly,’ we must see it in the widest possible net of relations.”16 This theory is most appropriate to Bell’s paintings.
His work is not as non-referentially abstract as one might imagine upon initial viewing. There are rich subtleties to investigate and discover. There are allusions that to Bell are autobiographical, and inspirational. His painting illuminates his universalist’s goals. “As the physicist Wigner once said: ‘Where in the Schrodinger equation do you put the joy of being alive?’”17 This can be transformative and transcendent.
1 Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 128.
2 Erich Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), 203. 3 Ehrenzweig 145.
4 “Gujral Speaks: an Interview,” Art Heritage 6 (New Delhi: Art Heritage at Paul’s Press, 1987), 54.
5 Jaya Appasamy, The Critical Vision (New Delhi: Labit Kala Akademi at New Statesman Press, 1985), 43.
6 Ramesh Chandra Shah, “Art, Imagination and the Modern Age,” Bahuvachan: An Occasional of the Arts and Ideas (Bhopal: Bharat Bhaven, 1988), 119.
7 Bejnamin H.D. Buchloh, “Interview with Gerhard Richter,” Gerhard Richter: Paintings (London: Thames and Hudson, 1988),15.
8 Ake Fant, “The Case of the Artist Hilma af Klint,” The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), 161.
9 Lucy R. Lippard, Overlay (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 97.
10 Colin Wilson, Poetry and Mysticism (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1969), 90.
11 Ajit Mookerjee and Madhu Khanna, The Tantric Way (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977), 54.
12 Mookerjee and Khanna 33.
13 Lippard 22.
14 K.G. Subramanyan, Moving Focus (New Delhi:Lalit Kala Akademi at Indraprastha Press, 1978), 99.
15 Charles Correa, “Myth in Indian Architecture,” Buhavachan, an Occasional of the Arts and Ideas (Bhopal: Bharat Bhavan, 1988), 80.
16 Wilson 74.
17 Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 294.
In 1989, Jon Meyer, artist and critic, was serving as director of the University Galleries, College of Architecture, Clemson Univer- sity.
Currently he is the Dean of the Division of Arts at Indiana University South Bend and continues to write for ARTnews, ARTS, and New Art Examiner, and other publications.
The Paintings of Trevor Bell by Jon Meyer from 'Expanding Themes', exhibition catalogue: The Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale, 1989.