TREVOR BELL 'TRANS-FORM'
AT PENINSULA ARTS, PLYMOUTH
16/4 - 26/5/2018
“I feel that what we should get from art is a sense of wonder,
of something beyond ourselves, that celebrates our ‘being’ here.”
Trevor Bell, (1930-2017)
Trans-Form is the final exhibition supervised by Trevor Bell before he sadly passed away in November 2017.
The core of the exhibition is eleven important, monumental paintings made from the early 1990’s up to a selection of his final key works. In this exhibition Bell’s unique paintings provide the impetus for a transcendent sound score composed by multi-instrumentalist Jamie Mills. This and the elemental energy of Bell’s work have then been used as the source inspiration for a new contemporary dance work co-choreographed and performed by Sarah Fairhall and Lois Taylor.
‘Trans-Form’ was conceived and curated by Joseph Clarke. This major exhibition event is delivered in partnership by Peninsula Arts and The Box, Plymouth.
Peninsula Arts, Roland Levinksy Building, Plymouth University, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA
10am to 5pm Monday to Friday
11am to 4pm Saturday. Admission free.
(The Exhibition Introduction can be viewed below)
My good friend, Trevor Bell, passed away on Friday 3rd November 2017, after a short illness. He was 87 years old.
Trevor was a wonderful, generous, ambitious and humble man who also happened to be an incredible artist. Up to the end he remained one of the most focussed and determined artists that I have had the challenge and privilege of working with. Trans-Form was our final collaborative project.
Many will have mourned his passing as the departure of the last of the ‘St Ives’ Modernists. In the past, I encountered those wanting to discuss with him this ‘St. Ives Modernist’ legacy, with exclamations of how they love his work from the 50’s and 60’s. Trevor, would wryly reply “Oh that's a pity, I don’t make those anymore”. You see Trevor’s most important work was the work yet to come.
As someone who has worked closely with him for the last 10 years of his life, I had the privilege of continually encountering an artist capable of capturing and distilling physical and metaphysical complexity with a graceful rawness and sophisticated simplicity. In this day and age, where there is often such a disconnect between ‘us' and the ‘other', his work was ever profound and pertinent, ever-feeling, ever-seeing and ever-searching, and his work, as a result, never rested on its considerable laurels. His art was about so much more than himself. As he often said he “was just in the middle”.
The curator Chris Stephens (when 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."
Albert Einstein once simply stated “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” For Trevor the role as conduit allowed these expressions of force and energy, part of, yet greater than, oneself to be expressed on to the canvas. This role of conduit is one where the artist becomes an edge breached, where energy moves beyond threshold. This liminality is central to the art objects that Trevor has created. It was not about that energy being illusionistically represented on the canvas, but a gestural record of its journey. The shaped form allowed for that expression to continue beyond the edge of the work itself. The work was just an ongoing trace.
His final body of work ‘Beyond the Edge’ was exhibited at Anima-Mundi in 2016. Key paintings from this period are included in this exhibition. They represented clearly Trevor’s intention for his expression to be read beyond the object itself, for the space around the work to become active. The period that preceded the making of his final paintings was also marked by his collaboration with the choreographer Rodger Belman in the States. Belman had responded to a series of Trevor’s drawings, which became choreographic studies for a series of performances in Florida. For Trevor this was exciting. His works as conduit. Literal borders breached once more.
Initial discussions around this exhibition at Plymouth began at the same time. It was natural therefore that this exhibition continued the work that had been started. The conceived project became an exciting one, to take key and favoured paintings from the studio, where transference of energy was intrinsic and allow them to serve as conduit for further forms of expression. To allow the spirit of, and in, the work to go beyond the edge. To transform - trans-form.
Our relationship was such that Trevor wanted to hand the project over to me, so that I in turn became a conduit for the project. Conversations continued with Belman in the states who’s connection was such that he was excited to build upon his previous work. I wanted the experience to be a more holistic and total experience so I approached Jamie Mills, knowing that he would respond, in the deepest sense, and energies began to flow. As the project began to take shape, with great shock and sadness Roger Belman at the age of 56 was diagnosed with cancer and passed away shortly after in October 2017, In addition Trevor’s health began to deteriorate and he passed away just weeks later. The pertinence of their departure added a huge weight of epitaphic responsibility to the exhibition, but also a poetic depth and resonance leaving clear and weighty understanding of how energy and spirit can remain and transcend all confines. Sarah Fairhall and Lois Taylor took choreographic reigns for the exhibition and we followed the flow. The resultant exhibition and related performances are a celebration of spirit, liminality and transformation.
I’m so proud to be a part of this most fitting of tributes.
Joseph Clarke, 2018.
'Trans-Form', Video, Duration: 22:53
Paintings: Trevor Bell, Sound Score: Jamie Mills, Dance: Sarah Fairhall & Lois Taylor.
Film: directed and edited by Joseph Clarke, filmed by Alban Roinard & Cameron Clarke.
TREVOR BELL - TRANS-FORM BY RICHARD DAVEY, 2018
When he was a young man, Trevor Bell had visited the Museum of Man in Paris and seen the power of the African masks. Seeing ‘the actual presence of things - the realness of them,’ as he put it, inspired him for the rest of his life. As a painter, he had been taught to represent and imitate things, yet what he found in these masks was not a representation or illusion of a god, but the god itself. From that moment he had wanted to find an equivalence in his paintings: to make them objects that were ‘it’ rather than an illusion of ‘it’, where reality was not illustrated and space was not illusionistic. Consequently, he began to explore other energies in painting, which allowed him to evoke sensations rather than appearances.
In 1955, Bell moved from Yorkshire to West Cornwall, and found himself part of the community of abstract artists that had made their home there. But unlike many of his St Ives contemporaries, Bell was never really a Modernist artist, concerned with the pursuit of pure forms or exploring the limits of painting. He was someone who followed his own meta-physical path, constantly crossing boundaries and navigating the unseen, seeing each painting as an expression or part of something bigger.
Bell wanted his paintings to become objects, his experiences to become sensations, and his colours and forms to be an actual presence. Yet the problem he found when using conventional canvases, with their right angled corners and straight edges, is that the viewing gaze is instinctively drawn inwards and held within the space of the painting. So, in the 1960’s, Bell began to work with shaped canvases, using lines he had drawn spontaneously onto the studio wall as templates for bending the wooden frames of his canvases into sinuous forms. These ‘active contours’ didn’t draw the eye in, but forced it outwards to the edges, and from the edges into the space beyond. Colours and forms were no longer contained by solid, hard borders or reduced to an element of visual language, they existed in their own right; a mesmerising presence whose dynamic energy seemed to flow into the world.
Most recently, Bell had pushed the potential of the active contour even further in constructions such as Bird and Balance, where he created a visual see-saw, with two canvases balanced on top of a curving timber arc. The image has become a sculptural object and colour has become a noun with weight and relativity.
The colours that saturate Bell’s canvases have an obvious presence, but so do the marks that bring them into the world. They provide a choreographic notation of Bell’s moving arm; tracing intent and hesitation, the passage of time and the consistency of the paint flowing through the bristles of the brush. Like words, these graphic gestures and descriptive lines bring character to the canvas, helping to introduce each work’s visual narrative;
Some of Bell’s gestures are a bold statement, sending the viewer’s gaze scurrying across the painted surface and beyond; the clash of colour against colour leaving a livid scar as their electric borders erupt in a burst of uncontrollable visual energy. Others are like a pigment whisper that leaves a barely perceptible trace as one tone gently dissolves into another, generating an evanescent haze.
Bell’s lines don’t always occur on the surface of the canvas, however. With our gaze directed towards the painting’s edge we become aware of those shadow-lines and imperceptible highlights that paint the surrounding wall. They create a constantly shifting penumbra that animates and activates these works, an edge, yet not an edge, holding and caressing them, blurring and blending the solid and the immaterial. Bell deliberately explored this transitional space in works such as Windance 1 and 2, where the wooden lines that usually define each canvas’s border have been freed to follow a lyrical path of their own. They tease and probe this liminal zone, reaching out into the unknown, whilst attached to the familiar.
Bell’s work has a zen-like simplicity: a self-contained rootedness in that space between inhalation and exhalation, which is the present. At one level they are about nothing: they don't refer to anything, they are not subject to anything - They are. But at the same time they are also products of embodiment. Their colours and forms are born out of an artist who stood in the Himalayas and contemplated the dance of clouds scudding across the sky, and looked down on rivers carving their path through distant valleys; someone who watched a rocket launch into space in a blaze of luminous energy, and who stood each day and looked out at the wind-scoured landscape around his studio. Bell translated these experiences into sensations, using colour and form to evoke the meta-physical, exposing the moment when matter transitions from being into nothingness, and formlessness becomes form.
Bell’s desire to transcend the limits of form lies at the heart of this posthumous work and exhibition, Trans-Form, which was initiated with his blessing before his death in November last year. As an artist who had constantly sought to cross the boundaries of his paintings, he had been fascinated at how they might also cross the boundaries between different art forms. He was particularly interested in the possibility of working with a composer and choreographer to create a work that explored the intersections of these different languages. Whilst, he himself would never see the results of this collaboration, the conversation that occurs between Bell’s paintings, Jamie Mills’ sound and Sarah Fairhall’s and Lois Taylor’s movement, brings this project to striking fruition.
To look at Bell’s paintings, whilst enveloped by Mill’s music and Fairhall and Taylor’s choreographed response, is to be reminded of form’s bodily origins. Here are slow breaths as white is born, the staccato edges of a line as the pianist’s fingers depress a piano’s keys, before slowly dissolving into the surrounding silence, the long legato of a sweeping gesture, or the frenzied sounds as tiny marks claw their way into being through blazing white. Sounds sweep and soar as lines dance across windswept surface and bodies rise and fall in exaltation. They echo, pulsate, blur, vibrate, build and linger. Colour may come from outside us, a star-born revelation that reveals the world in technicolour glory, but form comes from within, born of our bodies and movement; a universal language that ultimately transcends music, painting, dance and even our individual selves.
(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 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, in 2014 alongside the 2015 and 20 16 ‘RA Summer Exhibition’ catalogues.)
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.