'BEYOND THE EDGE'
EXHIBITION FOREWORD by Richard Davey
Trevor Bell’s latest works may be created from canvas and paint, but to describe them as paintings would be wrong. They are not intended to be representations of something else, nor are they self reflective works of ‘art for art’s sake’. Instead, they are self-contained objects, moments of wonder that Bell has found and brought into the light. They hover on the wall, differently sized and shaped canvases grouped together; colour propping up colour, their dynamic forms held in delicate tension or balanced with a gravity defying lightness.
Now eighty five,Trevor Bell is still pushing the boundaries, his new works taking us beyond the edge into a new territory. Colour no longer bursts out of the canvas to saturate the world and engulf the viewer. It is no longer there to prompt memories and demand an emotional response. Instead, Bell asks us to consider the weight of colour. He explores it as noun rather than adjective, something of mass and substance. It props up and balances; it serves as weight and counterweight, it asks questions of near and far. Associations with the landscape still linger in shades of purple, blue and sand, but they have become secondary in the balancing act that colour now performs.
Vibrant blacks dominate these paintings, a presence bursting into the world through a void of white. These blacks exert a gravitational pull that holds each painting down. However, look into these black holes and you become lost; freed from edges and boundaries, floating in the weightless vacuum of seemingly limitless space. It is then we notice the white, no longer an area of emptiness, but something of substance, a solid ground holding these bottomless pools. This constantly shifting tension between weight and weightlessness is reflected in the forms of these new works – fulcrums holding shapes of apparently different size in perfect balance, hinting at the optical illusion imposed by distance, where equivalence becomes difference and large becomes small.
These jagged black forms are not just about weight, however, but also about the process of emergence, the transition between being and nothingness, formlessness and form. Like the related series of Dance drawings, they serve as a choreographic notation, charting the progress of a line of energy as it is released into the world to become form.
There is a zen-like simplicity to Bell’s mark making, a rootedness in the present that is unrelated to anything outside itself. Each mark is like the duration of a breath - a self contained moment, yet dependent upon everything around it. These vivid marks trace the trajectory of Bell’s arm as it moves across the surface of paper and canvas, the thinning paint and ragged edges reflecting the slowly ebbing flow of pigment through the bristles of his brush.
Yet these new works are more than the marks that lie within the contours of the canvas. Around their edges are subtler lines – shadow-lines and imperceptible highlights that both contain and dissolve these active contours. They form a shifting penumbra that animates and activates these works – an edge, yet not an edge, holding and caressing each work, allowing it to dissolve into the space beyond.
What Bell has caught in these new works is that moment between inhalation and exhalation, the unnoticed tension that separates one thing from another. These self contained objects are not about anything, they don’t refer to anything, they are not subject to anything. They are. They are celebrations of existence and being, that take us beyond the edge of form into the space of becoming.
Richard Davey, 2016
(Richard Davey is an internationally published author, curator and member of the International ‘Association of Art Critics’. He is a judge of the John Moores Painting Prize 2016 and recently wrote the major exhibition publication for Anselm Kiefer’s solo exhbiition at the Royal Academy of Arts, in 2014 alongside the 2015 and 20 16 ‘RA Summer Exhibition’ catalogues.)
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EXHIBITION INTRODUCTION by Mark Hudson
Everyone wants to be first; no one wants to be last. Trevor Bell is often seen as the last of the great St Ives artists. Yet he is in many ways not a St Ives artist at all. A Yorkshireman, Bell first came to Cornwall in 1955, in the middle of St Ives’s great post-war modernist moment, at the suggestion of one of the key artists of the era, Terry Frost. The experience brought him into close contact with all the significant St Ives figures, gave him an umbilical link to pre-war constructivism via Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth – and helped facilitate a meteoric rise through the London gallery circuit, which saw him described, by Patrick Heron, as Britain’s “best non-figurative painter under thirty” in 1958. Yet far from putting down permanent roots in the manner of many incoming artists, Bell soon returned to his home city Leeds, taking up a Gregory Fellowship at the university and becoming involved in radical educational developments at the city’s art college. He subsequently spent twenty-five years teaching and working in America.
Bell’s pivotal early epiphany came not in response to Cornwall’s light or landscape, but on a visit to Paris while a student at Leeds College of Art in the very early 1950s. In the Musee de l’Homme in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Bell first saw African art: standing in practically the same spot in which Picasso had seen many of the same objects, in a different museum on the same site, forty-five years earlier. Looking into the “dusty cases”, appalled, yet fascinated by the powerful smell of the tropical wood and raffia, Picasso had observed that there was “everything” there. The young Bell, who had had barely any exposure to modern art, was impressed by the “the actual presence, the realness” of these objects – the severely abstracted form of a Dogon figure, for example, or the vital curves of a Basongye mask – by the fact that this art that wasn’t the representation of something, but a thing in its own right: “‘it’, as opposed to the illusion of ‘it’, the god itself, rather than the illusion of a god”.
It was a moment that set Bell’s work on a lifelong dialogue between painting as illusion and painting as object, painting as application and painting as fabrication; a tension which bore fruit in his shaped canvases of the early 1960s, and is still directly apparent in the powerful, yet wonderfully lyrical shaped works in this exhibition. Bell’s use of shaped canvases has been described as the element that most marks him out from the mainstream of St Ives art, that gives him at least as much in common with American post-painterly abstractionists such as Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, as with the likes of Lanyon and Hilton.
But let’s not overstate Bell’s disconnectedness from something to which he is patently connected. Trevor Bell lived in Cornwall from 1955 to 1960. He returned in 1996, and has lived here ever since. While his work is emphatically not of or about landscape, it is powerfully affected by the physical environment in which it is made – just as “what the artist ate for breakfast that morning must affect what he or she paints,” as Bell is fond of observing. “How can you be here in this wind and rain and sunlight, and that not affect your work?”
Trevor Bell is not a “Cornish artist”, but he is very much here in Cornwall.
Mark Hudson, 2016
(Mark Hudson is an internationally published author and regular art and music critic for the Daily Telegraph, and has also written for The Observer, The Mail on Sunday, The Financial Times, The Sunday Times and The Guardian His books include The Last Days of Titian, Our Grandmothers’ Drums, Coming Back Brockens and The Music in my Head.)
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.