John Bell has the postmodern blues: the struggle to create meaning through art in an age when not only the traditionally meaningful is drowned out, but the inconsequential is given preference. But his sojourn through the postmodern miasma takes him through the territory of personal history, artistic and cultural progenitors and even audience participation to locate the crux of what it means to be an artist.
After gaining notice nationally—exhibiting in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and at Art Basel in Miami—this is his first solo show in Utah since Size Matters at the temporary gallery Pop Shops in 2009. This retrospective not only examines the artist’s work, but also probes his process and culls some of his influences.
The photographic series Portraits Without Faces greets viewers in the vestibule of Nox Contemporary. Bell photographed everyone who visited his studio in the past five years wearing massage masks that cover the eyes, and the results are surprisingly expressive. The 48 photos on display provide an unusual way to look at people who have influenced him artistically. And visible in the background of the photos are paintings in different stages of creation.
In the center of the gallery, off to the side, is an installation re-creating Bell’s studio space. “Since I moved into my studio eight years ago, I’ve saved everything—every tube of paint I ever used,” he explains. A reclining chair is surrounded by the detritus of the artistic process. On the wall nearby is the mixed-media painting “The Muse Asylum,” taking up the idea of imprisoning the muse. This corner, he says, is a sort of self-portrait of the past eight years at his studio. Several old canvases hang from meat hooks.
Bell started venturing into the world of performance art with dinner performances, using a canvas as a tablecloth, allowing the diners to create a work of art with food. “A lot of people get really creative,” he says. “People were lighting wine corks on fire to create charcoal sticks, using melted candle wax.” The first performance was at his home, and the second was in Los Angeles’ Chinatown during Jancar Gallery’s West of Center show in 2011 by invitation of Utah Museum of Contemporary Art senior curator Micol Hebron. The Next Supper—a play on DaVinci’s “The Last Supper”—is planned as a fundraiser for the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art this September.
Bell wanted to polish the results into a “finished painting” at his studio, but Hebron dissuaded him. He found a way to satisfy his studio impulse by photographing the resulting canvases, split into a series of The 7 Deadly Commonalities, using the words “Eat,” “Drink,” “Defecate,” “Work,” “Fuck,” “Sleep,” “Die” and an eighth, “Repeat,” making them into a series of prints. The “tablecloth” lies draped in the corner of the room, near a video of the Chinatown event. The September event will add another layer, as gallery spectators will be able to watch the diners.
He involved viewers unwittingly in his neon piece “Private Residence,” on display near his photos, for the then-Salt Lake Art Center’s Lawn Gnomes show in June 2011. He played with the show’s idea of showcasing exterior home adornments, using the idea of privacy, and even discussing it on his part of the show’s phone tour. He considered viewers’ uncomfortable reactions a part of the artwork.
In the chapbook Fresh Oil!, he interviews himself, revealing personal insights, such as the fact that he sees colors, even when he turns off the light to go to sleep at night. He also asks numerous questions of himself and the world, such as, “Are deep-fried Twinkies a sign of an ailing culture?”
His paintings are the most pointedly cultural statements in the entire show, works such as “Menace; Google Search June 5, 2010,” “collaborating” with images obtained using the titular search engine—including Dennis the Menace and Dennis Hopper, shortly after the actor’s death. The series Would You Like to Become a Fan extends Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” idea into the Internet age, and Is This the Right Blue? probes artistic and personal choices, quoting Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide note.
“I believe that the real meaning of a work of art gets attached years down the road,” Bell says. “It’s gotta go live in the world; people have got to have a relationship with it.” His practice of immersing himself in his process, then disrupting it by involving others, then returning to the studio and repeating the process is an organic, yet savvy, reaction to our media-saturated landscape.
“I take the information the culture produces, I rearrange it, create opportunities for different meanings and then push it back out into the mix,” Bell says. After what he’s done with it, that mix has the edgy deliciousness of an artistic banquet. Maybe these blues aren’t so bad after all.
JOHN BELL: POSTMODERN BLUES
440 S. 400 West, Suite H
Through May 4