'THE WIND THE SPACE'
EXHIBITION FOREWORD by Sara Matson
There is so little time to 'take time' these days; deliberating over a painting can feel like a guilty pleasure. But Trevor Bell's paintings do need time to unfold. They call for slow contemplation. The complexity of experience and memory, bound in tension between the interior and exterior logic of these abstract canvases, gradually reveals itself. Only then can the event of viewing relate to the event of making, which again, the artist confirms, takes time.
The challenge for Bell with the Windover series was to 'let it be', to keep open the to-and-fro of pictorial demands, work with unexpected occurrences, adjust with moderation, have confidence in the final moment, then walk away. This requires deftness, daring, patience. Such intense engagement is rarely sustained in one session, so waiting, watching a film or reading the paper before returning all become party to the event.
In much the same way as the works exert themselves beyond the scope of their edges, it soon becomes apparent that this event occupies a broader frame of reference. Since the 1950s, Bell has articulated the dynamics of the natural elements in relation to his experiences of the world. The viewer is drawn into a personal history of encounters, at once cerebral and sensational, that is manifested in relationships of colour and form. Specifics of certain places – the light, space and strata of Florida, Italy, India, Cornwall – remain informative but are perhaps less relevant. The common preoccupation is negotiating the relentless directional force of the shaped canvas, which is continued throughout the whole series.
From One to Sixteen, free-floating forms evolve in concert, performing a succession of choreographed moves within a charged shallow space. Soft painterly veils counter searing hard edges; swathes of solid colour are paused mid-flow. They arch and fold in response to one another before splaying into the ether, or perhaps diminishing to a spindle poised above an edge of the canvas. Bell typically develops a dramatic tension between the middle and periphery of vision, keeping the eye moving, gathering pace, seemingly suspending the viewer or alluding to some space beyond.
Colour becomes a metronome, marking time. Matt blacks are soporific, whilst contrasting gloss blacks flit with light, maybe echoed elsewhere by a tentative white line. Pure pigments are slowly drawn out from the core of these forms; they glow with renewed vibrancy against the backdrop of solid colour, sometimes so luminous it becomes ephemeral.
Elsewhere, unexpected shots of opaque colour appear for the briefest of moments to secure an edge or activate the whole composition, like the jagged mustard yellow in the final canvas of the series: minimal yet essential, it offsets the interplay of black versus white in the space of a saturated green.
Bell continually conveys a sense of time through his recollection of colour – rooted in the subconscious, filtered over the years. But this is not an act of nostalgia so much as the creation of a context for a current state of mind. Perhaps the unity Bell strikes between the object and subject of his paintings, across an evolving series, derives from the enduring unity between his life and work. After nearly six decades, this equilibrium continues to question and contribute to the values of painting.
Sara Matson, Curator at Tate St Ives, 2014
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ARTIST STATEMENT by Trevor Bell
‘Windover One’ (taken from the sailing term wind-over-tide) is a title relating to that source i.e. interactive dynamic forces. It was the first of what has become an unexpected series. It was honest to give it the title ‘Raw Coast’, after all, that is where the idea of the image came from.
Extreme winter wind and rain constantly blasted the studio and I found a splendid location holding on to a rock over seeing the coast under such conditions, but is that really all the story? A sea-breaking rock carried memories of the ruined stupas in Ladakh and many images stored away must have their oblique say.
In earlier statements I have likened myself to a conduit in the middle, and I quickly realised that to identify the painting with particular experiences beyond itself and to place on it other meanings was a false imposition interfering with the unique experience only given by the work itself.
So to free them I decided to name the rest of the series simply One, Two, Three and so on in the order in which they arrived.
At ‘Thirteen’ I introduced a title ‘Collide’ which allowed me other formal possibilities
How many painters have struggled to think of a title, after the event?
From an early art school training in the traditional post Renaissance methods of illusionistic space without any knowledge of Cubism or Constructivism and with the domination of Sickert, and the Euston Road group when the set piece diploma life paintings had to be sent to London from all over the country for assessment, it obviously took some years to realise that for me it is the form itself that carries the meaning. PAINTING not PICTURES.
Trevor Bell, 2014
Trevor Bell was a British artist, born in Leeds, England in 1930. He passed away in 2017 at his home in west Cornwall.
Bell's creative interest focussed primarily, on painting’s power to evoke sensation, which for him superseded any illusionistic properties that it might have. Ambitious in scale and dynamic in form, the range of work is diverse, Bell’s over is a celebration of mutable energy, elemental forces and a quest for contemplative stillness. He achieved significant critical acclaim and recognition for his direct, abstract forms which emphatically represent the conflicting or harmonious physicality found in the natural world to the spiritual concerns which connect all that surrounds us from the micro to the macro.
Bell was as an important figure within the St Ives post war modernist movement, which achieved international acclaim. He also spent a significant part of his career in the USA, where he became head of art at Tallahassee State University, a role that he approached with zeal alongside the continued production of his expansive paintings and public artworks for which he became known. In 2007 Tate St Ives presented a ‘Beyond Materiality' a solo exhibition of contemporary work shown alongside key works drawn from five decades of painting. Chris Stephens (then head of displays at Tate Britain) said "Bell’s art is, in the loosest sense, spiritual. It evokes, or reflects, an idea of some abstract force that exceeds material reality... The dangers and losses of the modern world would be compensated through the rediscovery of natural order and process, and a renewed sense of individual identity would be established through the exploration of forces larger than ourselves. Bell’s work, one might say, has always derived in one way or another from this new sublime."
In 1955 he was encouraged by a friend and peer, Terry Frost, to travel to St Ives where he would find a place that he could focus on his painting amongst the town’s expanding artistic community. There he joined Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron amongst others. Bell’s career was quick to climb. Patrick Heron described Bell as “The best non-figurative painter under 30”. The following year Bell was awarded the honour of the prize for painting at the Paris Biennale. During this year Bell visited the ‘Museum of the Man’ which was to have a profound affect on him. Bells says of this encounter “To see the power of the masks and the actual presence of things, it made me realise that I wanted the work to have an equivalent that would be ‘it’ rather than the ‘illusion of it’, to be the ‘God’ rather than an 'illusion of a God’”. Bell also described an early meeting with Zen monk and teacher Snhunryu Suzuki at the house of Bernard Leach as particularly pivotal. Bell credits Suzuki with describing what he was “feeling" he had to do in painting, these lessons remained with him all his life. Bell stayed in St. Ives for five years constantly developing his technique and painting language, but in 1960 left St Ives and returned to Leeds College of Art as a Gregory Fellow (the youngest to date). It was here the he began to develop his shaped works which began to set him apart from other abstract artists of his generation. John Elderfield (head curator of MOMA New York) said "Bell was making paintings whose interior shapes referred to landscape - but to the forces as much as to the forms of landscape; and it was this concern for what is best described as dynamics which led him naturally into an investigation of the mechanisms of painting itself.” During the 1960s Bell showed work in major exhibitions in the UK and USA and during this time his work was first bought for the Tate collection. Bells idiosyncratic work continued to develop. In 1970, Patrick Heron stated; “One of the most important painters working anywhere today is Trevor Bell... As far as I am concerned [Bell’s paintings] are far and away the most original and successful shaped canvas paintings - which remain paintings - to have been produced anywhere. But the task of justifying this judgment and of explaining, even to myself, the reasons for their very great power and beauty is daunting in the extreme, because so much about their construction, their literal appearance and colour, is unique and therefore outside existing terms of formal comparison and analysis.” In 1972, while on a visit to Florida State University, Bell witnessed at first hand the night-time launch of the Apollo 17 space mission at Cape Canaveral. It was a spectacle that captured and inspired Bell, and became a captivating source for a number of works which followed. These works were included in his solo exhibition at London's Whitechapel Gallery in 1973, having just taken part in a major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. Bell located to the USA in 1975 and in 1976 after being appointed by Florida State University to become Professor for Master painting. Bell viewed his time in Tallahassee fondly, here with the provision of a warehouse sized studio and time to really develop his painting he continued to produce ambitious works. Alongside gallery exhibitions, he worked on public art commissions including 'Florida Queen' for the passenger terminal at Orlando airport made in 1981. Bell was included in the 1983 Tate Gallery ‘St Ives 1939-64’ exhibition and in the inaugural Tate St Ives exhibition when it opened in 1993. When he retired from Florida State University in 1996 he returned to Cornwall which had remained a spiritual home. He converted a farmhouse in to large scale studio’s to continue to make work with notable ambition. Bell was made an honoury academician of the Royal West of England Academy, an Honoury Fellow of Falmouth University and Professor Emeritus as Florida State in recognition of his achievements. Support in the US continued with Florida State University ensuring that Bell’s key American works remained prominent. A monograph published by Sanson & Company in 2009 written by Elizabeth Knowles and Chris Stephens communicated the huge breadth of Bell’s work on both sides of the Atlantic. 14 works were acquired by The Tate in 2014 and an acquisition was made in 2015 by the Perez Art Museum in Florida the most recent major acquisitions in a roster that includes a multitude of important public collections here and abroad. His final body of work ‘Beyond the Edge’ made at the age of 85 was a tour de force of purity, balance and the sublime - which encapsulated his philosophical aims for ‘nothing extra’ to intrude in the work. Bell would sum up his ability to encapsulate and distil natures physical and metaphysical complexity with a graceful rawness and often profound simplicity with typical humility by stating that "He was just in the middle”. Most recently Bell collaborated with choreographer Rodger Belman in the states in an exhibition incorporating painting and dance and in the final months of his life he was focussing on a future public solo exhibition 'Trans-Form’, a celebration of key recent and older works, their energies transformed into sound and contemporary dance. Trevor Bell’s paintings are represented by Anima-Mundi.