Both Ends of the Stream, exhibition catalogue: North Light Gallery, Armitage Bridge, Huddersfield, 2000.
Human beings are, it seems, irresistibly attracted to those places where nature has not become passive but is still full of force and the possibility of movement.
—Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land (1951)
This exhibition presents three key series of works produced during the last ten years, and therefore includes paintings from Trevor Bell's studio in Tallahassee, Florida and from his studio in West Cornwall where he now lives. Bell is an innovative and adventurous artist who is constantly exploring the boundaries of what he and his art are capable of. The Florida, Himalayas and Cornwall themes indicate a location—for their inspiration or their execution—but do not suggest that everything Bell has dealt with in the past ten years fits neatly within this categorization. A prodigious worker, Bell is a prolific artist who is capable of retaining a number of separate threads in his work at any one time. Certain preoccupations are constant and therefore evident across our three themes, but the range and diversity of Bell's work from any decade can only be hinted at in a single exhibition.
In the 1960s the art historian John Elderfield wrote of Trevor Bell that his “paintings cover a range wider than most artists would think prudent. What makes them so interesting is that his themes run parallel rather than in strict sequence. But after experiencing surprise at the difference of the works one begins to understand their basic and persistent theme and finds a strong sense of continuity between the very recent and the earlier, landscape-oriented pictures.” Prudence is not a concept recognized by Bell, for as a painter he has always taken risks and gone his own way—the mark of a consummate artist. He is not afraid of scale or colour, or of breaking rules about what shape we expect a painting to be. Few painters contend so successfully with large canvases, or with such intense and rich colour. It is not easy to sustain the argument, that is to keep the tension and balance of form, hue and gesture, across a wide expanse of canvas. It takes a particularly high level of talent, and a deep knowledge of one's materials and of one's craft as a painter, to achieve success on this scale.
We in the UK are not used to such scale or vivid use of colour in art. Paintings like Hook and Semaphore II (both of 1990) are ‘loud,‘ when we expect our artists (at least in the use of paint) to be restrained, even polite. This is life-affirming art, which shouts with joy and energy. Yet, as is evident in paintings like Dark Mountain (1994) and Four (1998), Bell is also capable of creating paintings of fine poetic sensibility and subtle power. His more somber canvases were seen in America as signaling a change in his mood. From the brash ‘heat-scape' of the Florida paintings to the subtle hues of the Himalayas series must have seemed a sudden transition, but to me they are both reflections of the same acutely-tuned response to environment. In his use of colour, bright and somber tones exist side-by-side.
Bell's art is anchored in emotion, in his personal, heart-felt response to the world. His paintings are intense because feelings are intense. They are expansive in their rich inner tapestry of interconnection and resonance in which people, places, events, objects, colours, mood, atmosphere merge. Like us all, Bell retains echoes and images of encounters and experiences long after the event, which having become inseparable from his notions of “self” emerge as he works. Almost anything can trigger a sequence of memory-emotion and (physically impossible) connection. This process denies the possibility of ascribing a specific source of “inspiration” to individual paintings. Never-the-less each painting emerges as part of a particular sequence or period of work—which, as is indicated by the broad themes in this exhibition, have a common thread or inspirational source.
Trevor Bell would be the first to admit that his work is deeply affected by the natural world: by landscape, its often complex forms and colours, and by the interaction and juxtaposition of both; by light, its perpetually changing intensity, its effect upon colour and its revelation of form; by the atmosphere of place, which is only partly, and so much more than, an amalgam of form, colour, light, prevailing weather conditions—and personal mood. We must not therefore think of Bell's images as in any way attempts to capture the likeness of a particular place. They evoke, rather than portray, the complexity of experience. The titles of paintings are conjured by the images themselves. What emerges in the process of making suggest an evocation of place, even or found form. Zawn is the Cornish name for the crack in the cliffs where sea-spume thunders. Dawn Raga (1998) generates echoes of a potent moment watching the dawn over the Himalayas. Zanskar River (1992) does not describe the contour of the watercourse, but is equivalent to Bell's sensual experience of it. The plan and elevation of landscape—walking through it, real or imagined flight over it—are as important to Bell as the detail of its fabric.
This work is a celebration both of life and of the act of painting. As with every artist there are periods of struggle, as Bell tries to find his image in the application of paint and his response to the canvas. The challenge is to create an image strong enough to match the level of his expectation of it. But Trevor Bell loves what he does. You can see it in the paintings—the delight is tangible, and the energy and commitment spill over into us. These paintings make you smile, and they make you feel the power of the emotion which underlies them. The forces of nature animate the natural world. We don't experience the world simply in terms of colour, line and form—all three interact within light to create the sensation of seeing. So too in Bell's paintings, these elements are employed to create sensations which are the equivalent of those which make it possible for us to ‘read' our world. Painting is dependent for its ability to communicate upon gesture, line, colour (how it works together), surface texture and its internal “space.” Bell has added another player to the interaction—the edge.
When Bell made his first shaped canvas around 1960, he challenged established notions of what constitutes a painting, and his work ceased to be constrained by traditional expectations of what this particular artform is capable of. Animating the contour of the canvas created the potential for dialogue between the painting's boundary and its interior, between its physical form and the artist's gesture — his brush marks — which articulate the surface. Bell took the concept promoted by modern art of the unframed, and therefore unrestrained, painting-asobject a major step further. Achieving a balanced painting within a canvas which has its own character (as opposed to the “neutrality” of a square or rectangle) offered a new challenge—and Bell constantly sets himself problems and questions which can only be answered in the process of painting.
In Trevor Bell's — often very dramatically — shaped canvases, the frame ceases to be a means of containing the image, and becomes a part of it. The canvas is no longer a stationary or static object on which to paint. Under this painter's hand it is a dynamic form, where the edge plays as important a part in the finished image as does the painted surface. When he liberated the canvas edge from its role as delineator of the painting/world division, the physical presence of Bell's art suddenly changed. His shaped contours activate and respond to the space around them, becoming participants in the world, in a way not looked for in a traditional work of art. This is as true of the gently beveled outline of Edge (1999), as it is of the astonishing shape of Reef (1992) or Desert (1994). In works like Red Ring (1991) and Open Form (1992) the “frame” has been liberated from the canvas contour to take on a new role in containing real (as opposed to painted) space, or in describing its own trajectory—thereby extending the painting's dynamic beyond the limits of the canvas. Now an equal partner in painter's vocabulary, “frame” has a new identity as pure line.
Forty years on from that first shaped painting, Bell's canvases are rarely straight-edged (even those that at first acquaintance are apparently “square”), and they very often have physical depth far beyond that dictated by the normal stretcher: his shapes defy the inflexibility of the traditional frame—he has invented a method of constructing the stretcher which is akin to that employed in making tennis rackets, and he can be as inventive and adventurous with the form of his paintings as he wishes. However extreme or subtle the canvas shape, edges are painted with particular attention and intent. Often beveled, rounded, convex or concave they take part in the articulation of the picture plane and strengthen the physical presence of the painting. Even in cooler, white or grey-blue paintings, edges are enlivened by the use of unexpected hues. Hot oranges and yellows—their colour and light reflected on the wall—heighten and extend the painting's environmental effect.
Bell's art has a grandeur and physical presence which is only in part due to the large scale at which he habitually works. Scale creates a relationship with the viewer that is physical. These are not referential works of art—they have their own independent reality and identity. Nor are they modest or restrained—the viewer may be enveloped by them. Walk up close and allow the painting to fill your peripheral vision. Feel the physicality of the experience, as Bell feels the landscape of Florida, India and Cornwall. Unlike traditional painting, there is no fixed point of focus—these paintings unfold as the eye roams over them. We discover them as we experience landscape—as a cohesive, interconnected and expansive whole. This is true even of the smallest of his paintings, and of his drawings. Alongside the paintings Bell draws constantly, using the smaller scale and spontaneity of working on paper to experiment: exploring his gestural mark-making, cutting or tearing the paper's edge to create new forms, rubbing the page away until light shines through. In their elaboration of new images the drawings, if anything are wilder and freer than the paintings—they allow for playfulness and the possibility of allowing an idea to run, simply to see where it leads. At their best Bell's drawings are as substantial as his paintings, their image-strength as potent.
In 1995 Trevor Bell wrote of his approach to making art, “I feel that what we should get from art is a sense of wonder, of something beyond ourselves, that celebrates our being here. It condenses the experience we all have as human beings, and, by forming it, makes it significant. We all have an in-built need for harmony and the structures that create that harmony. Basically art is an affirmation of life.”
Bell works from a deeply felt response to the expansiveness and drama of nature and to the subtlety of its form and movements. Responding as much to the forces of nature as to the specifics of its topography and appearance he is attracted to both the grand scale and to the detail of the natural world—to the outline of the Himalayas, the complex structure of a river valley, and to the texture and contour of the Cornish coast. From his earliest work painted in his native Yorkshire, to his most recent paintings created in his Cornish studio, Trevor Bell's art celebrates and affirms our precious human capacity for delight and joy, admiration and awe.
Lynne Green is an historian and critic working in the field of British modernism and contemporary art. Having worked as exhibitions officer at London’s Hayward Gallery, she was subsequently director of Southampton City Art Gallery. The co-founder and former editor of Contemporary Art (now Contemporary) magazine, she is now a full-time writer-curator. She is the author of the major monograph on the St Ives painter W. Barns-Graham: a studio life published by Lund Humphries.