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Gavin's Underground

March Gallery Stroll: John Bell

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2012-03-18 -
I don't know whether to call this past Friday “unseasonably warm” or “unnecessarily windy” since both seemed to play a role. Actually, if you wanna talk terrible winds, we should discuss the parade the next morning, but we'll get to that later. In any case, this past Gallery Stroll was kinda nice to run around in, which made our visit to Nox Contemporary all the better.
Inside its walls and the pseudo-garage/studio hung the pop-art collages, paintings and photographs of John Bell. If you haven't heard of Bell or seen his works, that would actually be a tremendous shock as he's become one of the few Utah-based artists to make it big beyond the state, having found success in the NYC, L.A., Miami and Las Vegas art scenes. His collections have been featured in some top-notch galleries across the U.S., he's been featured in dozens of national publications and his work now sits in many private collections. But Bell has remained an SLC man at heart, and chose Nox to showcase his first local display in over two years. Today, we chat with Bell about his career and artwork as we browse his collection, of which you can check out pictures in this gallery.

John Bell

Gavin: Hey, John. First thing, tell us a bit about yourself.

John: I have an idea … how about I just answer the questions from one of those Vanity Fair profiles? They do a fairly good job at creating a snapshot of a person. "What is your idea of perfect happiness? Stillness of mind with an open heart, breathing in your lover's breath. What is your greatest fear? Hurting someone. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Picasso. Which living person do you most admire? There are many qualities I admire in people, but no one person rises to the top. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Forgetting names. What is the trait you most deplore in others? A cocktail of arrogance and cruelty. What is your greatest extravagance? Eight to 10-hour blocks of uninterrupted studio time. What is your favorite journey? Inward. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Moral certainty. On what occasions do you lie? Does this make me look fat? What do you dislike most about your appearance? Let’s not go there. Which living person do you most despise? GWB2. Which words or phrases do you most over use? Well, anyway … and peace. Which talent would you most like to have? Bob Dylan’s. What is your current state of mind? Divergent. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? To be less selfish. If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be? My mother wouldn’t have died of cancer at age 50. If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? An eagle. The bird, not a band member, although that wouldn’t exactly suck -- the 70’ era, that is, cocaine cowboys and all. What is your most treasured possession? Ephemeral as it may be, my creativity. Where would you like to live? Paris. What is your favorite occupation? Daydreaming. What is the quality you most like in a man? Easygoing confidence. What is the quality you most like in a woman? There are so many, but if I can only pick one then, again, it’s an easygoing confidence. What do you most value in your friends? Loyalty, individuality, that we freely chose one another. Who are you favorite writers? David Foster Wallace, Charles Bukowski, Edward Abbey, Stephan Dunn and Christopher Hitchens. Who is you favorite hero of fiction? Tyler Durden. Who are your heroes in real life? Anyone bold and brave enough to follow an intriguing light to its source regardless of popular opinion. What do you most dislike? Work that feels like work. How would you like to die? Smiling.”
Gavin: What first got you interested in art and what were some of your early inspirations?

John: I was born into it. The first 10 or 15 years of my life I had no idea that I could choose to be anything other than an artist. I’ve been involved in the creative process for so long, internalizing my craft for so many years, that it’s become second nature to me. It's how I process life; everything is shot through the prism of creativity, so it all inspires me in one way or another. I’m voracious with books, magazines, movies, the Internet, music, art ... constantly searching, interpreting, rearranging and creating. It seems like everything gets me thinking and questioning, and that's the key -- inspiration always comes from questions. It can be as simple as what if ...

Gavin: You originally studied at the Pittsburgh Art Institute back in the mid '80s. What made you choose PAI and what was its program like for you?

John: I have a degree in visual communication from PAI, which is a hybrid of graphic design, photography, art history, color theory, drawing etc., so it more or less shaped the duality of my career path. It’s why I’m comfortable in both the business world and the art world. The program there was very good and I had some fantastic teachers, people who profoundly shaped my artistic identity; Angelo Ciotti was a magical and major influence, as were Flavia Zortea and Rita O’Brien. Like anything, you get out of an endeavor what your willing to put into it, and I reveled in it.
Gavin: What made you decide to get into advertising and what was your time like in the business?

John: Hell, I don’t remember anymore ... the imposed expectations of a degree? I guess I thought I’d try my hand at the yuppie, high-pressure, big-money grind ... I bought a BMW, some golf clubs and the last tie I ever owned, then worked 12 to 18 hours a day (including weekends) for two years. I was pretty good at it, won a bunch of awards, drank 8,000 martinis, chased secretaries into supply closets and felt my soul slowly being sucked into the abyss of corporate hell.

Gavin: Why did you decide to move to Utah, and how did you start up the clothing line Huge?

John: The witness-protection plan arranged that for me. Not really; actually, I decided to bag the high-pressure career in advertising and become a ski bum in Breckenridge, Colorado. Snowboarding, actually, but I never heard it referred to as snowboard bum. I was going through a very nomadic period in my life. I would get fed up with a scene, throw a bag and a guitar into the car and just leave. I’ve always been drawn to extremes. When I lived in Breckenridge, I met and started designing T-shirts with my now-business partner at Huge, Rob Worthington. We had a good run at it, but the ski-bum life tends to be a primer for Betty Ford, so naturally, it fell apart. I crisscrossed the country for a little while, spent some time in northern California -- where I regained my soul -- and eventually the powder trail and the inability to actually work for someone else led me to Salt Lake City where Rob had moved. We decided to make a serious run at starting our own business and that’s how Huge came about. We had $7,000 between us with nothing to lose and attitude to spare -- we did name the company Huge before we ever sold a single T-shirt. Twenty years on and we're still going strong.
Gavin: Over the years, you were still creating artwork in your spare time while running the company. What kept you going to create art, even though people weren't seeing it?

John: Because that’s what I do; it never occurred to me not make art. There’s a certain beauty and freedom creating work in solitary without the expectations of showing it. It gives you room ... the time and space to develop without the influence of necessity, like food, rent, a car, insurance, etc., which can influence what you create i.e., just doing something that you think will sell because you're broke. Graphic design and photography took care of the bills, including art supplies, and gave me the freedom to explore my work and find a voice. A career traps some people, but I’ve always maintained a balance and found a way for my various pursuits to feed one another.

Gavin: What influenced the kind of acrylic pop art that you've become best known for?

John: My working process combines elements from various styles of art including pop. I mix in a lot of different techniques and philosophies while commenting on current culture, which by some definitions is postmodernism. Culture has always built upon culture. I’m appropriating and re-arranging information the culture produces, creating opportunities for alternate meaning and sending it back out into the mix. Some of this information has come to me inadvertently simply by being interested in things; most of it has found me against my will -- think media -- just trying to get through the day. I don’t like the idea of there being only one side or slant to the information that bombards us day and night; that’s not a very healthy democracy. Ultimately, my process is a product of the times. It’s a cross-pollinated, hybrid, mashed-up culture we live in these days. The best of what I do holds a mirror up to that culture, so to me it always made perfect sense to adopt that ethos in my art.
Gavin: What eventually persuaded you to start doing exhibitions, and what were you first few shows like?

John: Darryl Erdmann persuaded me to have my first show. He’s a good friend, an amazing artist, and has been a big influence on my work and career. He owned Chroma Gallery in Sugar House for years, where he talked me into showing my first painting and, soon after, my first solo show. When I placed that first painting in the gallery, he warned me that it may not sell, that viewers could be critical and to not to be discouraged; he was very protective of me. He called me the day after we hung the painting to tell me it had sold, that there had been a fair amount of interest in it, and would I consider doing a solo show? The show, "Drinking, Smoking & Dancing with the Muse" was a small success. I sold some work and viewers were very receptive, for the most part. But the experience going from years of solitary studio practice to public exhibition, or public hangings as I like to call them, was so intense that I quit the next day when the adrenaline high wore off. I swore I would never do it again -- three days later, I was back in the studio, picking things up off the floor and gluing them to a canvas with paint: beer caps, paint tubes, a cigar I smoked that night, torn-up show invites and what not, all these artifacts from the process of mounting a show. They all went into a piece titled "Thoughts On The Big Show," which I’ve kept for the past eight years. I will be showing it for the first time at Nox as part of an installation piece titled "The Muse Asylum," which is a glimpse -- or portrait -- of eight years in the studio.
Gavin: How was it for you coming up through the local art scene and becoming a must-see artist?

John: After the Chroma show, I couldn’t find a gallery to represent my work, to promote and build a career the way it’s done in more established markets, so I opened my own gallery in the fall of 2004, One Modern Art. I had a great time, did some very successful group and solo shows and was able to work with a lot of my favorite local artists and friends. I closed it after opportunities to show outside of the state came up. There just wasn’t enough time to run Huge, run a gallery and manage an art career all at once. Ultimately, it was the success outside of Utah that seemed to validate my standing within the arts community locally.

Gavin: For your style of art, what's the process like for you when creating a new piece?

John: It’s fairly divergent; most of my paintings start as very large, raw canvases rolled out on the floor. I’ll begin by dumping a lot of paint, using rollers, brushes, nails, free associating and writing with pastel or oil sticks, screening images, using rubber mallets, putty knives, etc. Then once I feel they can go no further, I’ll have them stretched up, move to the wall and start considering the more graphic elements to complete them.
Gavin: Do you play around with the design a bit before finishing it or do you stick to what you planned?

John: Many times I will photograph a work in progress, bring it into the computer and play with images and graphics over it, then return to the studio to execute. The process moves from organic -- no plan, to more technical -- a plan forms, to a combination of both. A painting is a living thing in the studio that starts to create itself at some point; at times, I feel like I’m just along for the ride. Most of the time my subject is cultural values, so I’ll choose images from the media and various other sources that interest me --juxtapose them on the canvas in a somewhat visual free association to see what kind of dialogue they create. That dialogue always seems to push the narrative in unexpected directions.

Gavin: A couple of years ago, you started doing exhibitions around the country and spent the better part of two years traveling. From that, you've become sought after by both publications and art collectors, doing designs for covers and also creating works for private collections. What has it been like for you achieving that kind of success?

John: It’s all been an amazing learning experience, from the rejections -- tons of them -- to getting some press, or showing and selling work at Aqua during Art Basel Miami. When people you respect believe in and value your ability as an artist, it’s a very humbling, validating and inspiring experience.
Gavin: This is your first show in SLC in some time. Tell us about the works you have on display for this month's Stroll.

John: The work in “Postmodern Blues” is an inquiry into the nature of success in an increasingly dystopian cultural climate. It is also a glimpse at the process, influences and daily annihilation an artist experiences searching for meaning in his work through that culture. Works that pose the questions -- What do we value? What influences us? What do we risk? What is privacy today? or Is this the right blue? -- implying: Can seemingly arbitrary choices be the difference between success and failure in our work and our lives? There are paintings, prints, photography, installation and video on display. I also publish a chapbook for the show titled Fresh Oil! where I interviewed myself to help explain the works in the show and my artistic practice.

Gavin: What are your thoughts on being displayed at Nox Contemporary and working with them for this show?

John: I think John Sproul and new gallery director Jenevieve Hubbard are putting together a great program and I’m pleased to a part of it. John has been a very active proponent of contemporary art here in Salt Lake, with the gallery, his own career as an artist, founding the Foster Arts Program and hosting monthly salons to discuss contemporary art. I hope I can add to the success of his vision.
Gavin: Moving on to local art, what are your thoughts on our art scene, both good and bad? And is there anything you believe could be done to make things more prominent?

John: I feel Salt Lake has a ways to go, but it has a great potential. Adam Price at UMOCA is doing a fantastic job bringing contemporary art to the forefront, as well as Jill Dawsey with the SALT shows she curated at UMFA. Jeff Lambson at the BYU Museum of Art is an out-of-the-box thinker who’s curated some amazing shows. Nox Contemporary and House Gallery are doing some great shows, as well as Adam Bateman with CUAC. They are raising the bar; now we need more people to back their play. I have found an audience for my work in Salt Lake over the past eight years. I had my best year for sales in 2011, and the new collectors of contemporary work are a major factor in this equation -- without them, we are just entertaining ourselves and that is an unsustainable situation. The raising of the bar by those mentioned above, this kind of thinking, is changing the way people see, feel about and, ultimately, collect contemporary art in Salt Lake City.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of this year?

John: Well, I have a show/performance in September at UMOCA titled "The Next Supper," which will be the third in my dinner-performance series, where the goal is to erase boundaries between art, viewer and experience. I create canvases printed with words and images designed to provoke, which are used as tablecloths in an otherwise formal setting. The only requirement I had of my guests is that they responded to what’s on the canvas and each other, finishing the painting with the only medium available to them: the food. They become the performers and, ultimately, the subject of the finished art. It’s quite fascinating to watch a very formal dinner party of composed adults digress into a primal state, smearing food, using flowers as brushes, lighting corks on fire to make charcoal sticks, etc.; they’re surprisingly quite willing. The UMOCA performance will be held in the main gallery with a table set for 70 for two consecutive nights, so the guests will not only be the performers and subject of the art, they will be on display with other works of art. The public will be able to view the dinner during the performance; it will be like being in a surrealist painting as it’s being created. It is also a fundraiser for UMOCA; tickets are available through the museum for $200 per guest. The food and wine will be fantastic and the experience one-of-a-kind.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

John: I have a show at the BYU Museum of Art in the spring of 2013 that has yet to be titled. I will be creating a dozen or more sculptures that surround the building, right up through the front entrance, that will lead to the paintings that will be on display. Some of these works are from private collections and have never been shown here in Utah.


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