Leslie Bell, Ghost Child, 2004, oil on canvas, 40 x 45 inches (courtesy of Moberg Gallery)
Michael Rutherford interviews painter Leslie Bell about his work and process.
Bell remarks: "The history of painterly expression goes back to the caves but skips generations along the way. The pendulum swings…loose; tight; loose; tight. What excites me most is a dynamic combination of description and expression. I remember as a little kid marveling at Rembrandt’s Woman at the Half Door at the National Gallery in Washington. One second, the painting was a series of splotches and organic accidents. The next second, a precise sort of light, body language and emotional tone were pouring out of the painting. I love abstraction. I love realism (in the Manet sense) but the seamless combination of the two is where my heart leaps... Non-formulaic storytelling is very important to me. From Giotto onwards, there have always been artists who bring a private and personal viewpoint to their analysis of human life and values."
Sheldon Tapley reviews the exhibition Narrative Figuration at the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati on view through June 5, 2011.
Tapley notes that the five painters in the show, Robert Anderson, Daniel O'Connor, Tim Parsley, Emil Robinson and Tina Tammaro, have each committed to "a curiously old-fashioned choice: to keep making pictures by hand, using simple drawing materials, and a grand old medium, oil paint... these painters [also] devote themselves, at least in part, to another old practice: working from 'life.' To use the term invokes particular values: admiration of past accomplishments; identification of the human figure with beauty and meaning; the importance of carefully observing and depicting the visible world."
Hagler introduces the interview by writing that Schweitzer "has a wonderful mix of formal invention and playful, curious narrative in her work. Many painters I’ve seen tend to fall into the formalist camp or the narrative camp, and one of the things that I very much appreciate about Elise’s work is that she plays within both worlds and does so with confidence and a sense of visual adventure. She is deeply committed to the color relationships and shape life of a painting as well as to that art of storytelling that links her work to those poets of paintings past."
Asked about narrative Schweitzer comments: "The narratives in my paintings are a scaffolding; they create a structure of formal problems to be solved. If a herd of centaurs charge in from the right, what kind of slingshot movement is going to carry you across the canvas? The most important part of that painting became the white plastic lawn chair falling over in the middle right. It’s a turnstile, catching the tablecloth, about to be kicked away by the centaur, spinning as woman in pink stumbles away. That’s how the narrative ideas appear at first to me, but I’ve always discovered in retrospect or as I’m working on them that there is an autobiographical component to the imagery as well. As much as the centaur painting is an excuse to paint a battle scene, it was also a reflection of my mental state at the time."
Megan Marlatt, Venetian Red Riding Hood, 2006, acrylic and oil on linen, 42 x 48 inches (courtesy of the artist)
Margaret McCann (PT): What does the title of your recent show, “Substitutions for a Game Never Played,” at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond VA, reveal about your sense of play in art-making? Jung said, “… play [belongs] to the child, [appearing] inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth.”
Megan Merlatt (MM): Jung is correct, and as the oeuvre of my toy work grew, so did my empathy toward child’s play and similarities between that world and the artist’s. I became interested in the “anima” in “animation”…what makes dead matter come alive, how do both the child and the artist imbue life into seemingly inanimate objects?
Megan Marlatt, Toy Pile with an Arabian Foot, 2005, acrylic and oil on canvas, 42 x 54 inches (courtesy of the artist)
PT: Large piles of toys gathering dust don’t speak well of our consumerist culture, and my inner hoarder feels slightly ashamed looking at them, but then they also reflect Baudelaire’s statement that “Is not the whole of life to be found [in a great toyshop] in miniature - and far more highly colored, sparkling and polished than real life?” Are the paintings also about pure pleasure?
Megan Marlatt, Profile of Ms. Oyl, 2010, acrylic and oil on round panel, 20 inches (courtesy of the artist)
MM: Yes, and I hope viewers have the same conflicting feelings - both damned and seduced by our plastic consumption. Admittedly, my first response to the toys was that of a visual artist; they were colorful and their forms were smartly engineered and enjoyable to paint and draw. But I’ve always been interested in the human condition and how social issues effect art making, so I couldn’t avoid that most of this stuff was wasteful junk. The more I collected and piled the toys up, the more the paintings began to speak to me of a mass, cultural vertigo…a dizziness of too much stuff, too much stimulation, too much information, too much plastic. Mass consumerism doesn’t just produce masses of junk, it can rob us of our sense of preciousness.
Yet I’m not above being seduced myself, and ironically, plastic can evoke a sense of preciousness, in that inevitably I’d pull from the wreckage a toy from my childhood, or one so well crafted one couldn’t help designating it ‘special’. As I’d paint these individually, as portraits, they turned out to be the ones through which I began to feel the meaning of child’s play in the artist’s studio.
PT: How important is 'degree of difficulty' for you? Paintings like “Venetian Red Riding Hood” show mastery – skillful but non-fussy drawing, clever manipulation of light, beautiful color, and an expressive handling of paint. Their ambition (50+ figures) reminds me of the technical virtuosity academic history painting placed on multi-figure compositions. Can toys be people, too?
MM: Well, I have been painting for a long time, and I’m aging, and life is short – so I feel my efforts are worthy of ambitious instead of half-hearted ones. My intention involves blurring the lines between genres, so that still lifes can read as landscapes, portraits, history painting, etc. But as gravity pulls the toy piles downward over time, and as the toys appear to move during close observation, jiggling in the corners of my eyes as I turned to find the right color on my palette, the blurring continues; I wind up painting 'un-still lifes’. Toys are so 'loaded' culturally and emotionally they can substitute for many things.
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.