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.)
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.)