530 W 25, 4th fl,
New York, NY 10001
April 22-May 17,
Temma Bell Dark
Sky over Esja 2002
oil on linen, 32" x 60", courtesy the artist
and Manet/Velazquez may have been the most remarkable exhibitions of
figurative paintings this spring, but there were also many others of
work by such contemporary artists as Lois Dodd, Eric Fischl, Paul Georges,
and Wayne Thiebaud, to name but a few. All received media attention,
even though not every gallery presented the painter's very strongest
work. Such is the nature of the art scene that a familiar artist's lesser
efforts will be reviewed while equally deserving but less-known work
goes unnoticed. One especially noteworthy exhibition this spring is
in fact Temma Bell's at Bowery Gallery, her eleventh there and possibly
most impressive to date. (And by way of disclosure I should note my
own association with the gallery as an artist).
For some four decades Bell has produced vividly hued, rapidly brushed
landscapes, still lifes, and figure paintings, all painted from observation
at her upstate sheep farm or in Iceland, her mother's native home. Bell's
freeform application of paint combines lush strokes, thin washes, and
partial scrapings-away of pigment. Gallery-goers steeped in current
art theory (which tends to be long on conception and short on sensibility
about color and form) may find here just attractive craftsmanship and
imagery. But those attuned to the expressiveness of traditional composition-what
Roger Fry liked to call "plastic continuity"-will find considerably
more; for them, Bells' paintings will reflect a personal, elemental
language that speaks not of taste or ideas but of individual energy,
initiative, and insight.
A first glance at the twenty-two landscapes at Bowery suggests the interest
in geometry-in the way, say, that the diagonal of the foreshortened
roof of From Hverfisgata II opposes the stacked horizontals of a landscape
beyond. It neatly demonstrates the peculiar cohabitation of surface
pattern and spatial illusion in painting. Bell's concern, however, is
less in demonstrating principles than in mining their poetic possibilities.
A longer look reveals extraordinarily complex nuances of colors and
shapes. Foreground buildings, molded out of shadowy, absorbent hues
among intense, sunlit notes, occupy a thick and variegated space in
the painting's lower third. Atop, extending the canvas' width, lies
an impenetrable, silvery band of water. Directly above a range of dark
mountains cantilevers abruptly across, its dark warm greens and purplish-blues
stiffened by an internal rhythm of and arcs and angles. Brilliant whites,
pure cerulean blues and muted gray-blues race above as streaks of cloud
and sky. Odd, poignant moments appear: a single dark point (a bush?
fire hydrant?) arresting a horizontal stream of green; closer at hand,
a dark pot-shape marking the culmination of a chimney's rise.
Mere picturesque description? Hardly-every color and shape has been
weighed to convey how each object occupies its space, and its import
for the whole image. As if by a somehow continuous process of anticipation,
these impulses all connect to become the phenomenon of a bright, barely
hazy afternoon at a northern seaport, complete with (or, better, completed
by) its visual contradictions.
Compare this painting to the Dark Sky over Esja hanging alongside. The
same scene has been completely transformed: the foreground is now a
gently shadowed foil for penetrating spaces in a darkening sky; the
sea has become a luxurious, inviting blue/green carpet dotted with highlights,
the mountain's velvety shadows newly absorbent of light. The totality
captures the pungent and contrasting atmosphere of a storm just passed.
And here again is the paradox of a painting as an artifice of forms,
cohered solely by a comprehending eye-and becoming, in the process,
more real than the most detailed illustration.
Temma Bell Blue
Sky, Yellow Fields Delhi 2001
oil on linen, 38" x 72", courtesy the artist
Other scenes demand
other inventions, and two paintings of a snow covered field seen from
different viewpoints require varying formats, horizontal and off-square.
All elements change according to the situation: trees have the aspect
of gathering or streaming away in tendrils according to the needs of
pale fields, fields that are themselves animate in the way they pool
or slice into the depths of the paintings. Subtle movements resonate
everywhere, and it takes several moments for the eye to pick up the
barest changes of temperature of whites that hastens their rolling movement
into the distance.
For me, the most startling paintings of the show were the largest. Many
painters stiffen as they scale up their gestures, but Bell positively
thrives on wide expanses. (Coincidentally or not, the least compelling
works in this strong show are among the smallest.) In the bold, 38"
x 72" Blue Sky, Yellow Fields Delhi, Bell recounts the specific
dramas of a panoramic valley with fast strokes and broad but exacting
rhythms. Below distant tilting tiers of fields, a great swelling plain
of yellow, girded about by shrubs of a murkily insistent purple, dominates
so it seems to almost fill our vision. Details stake out their necessary
positions, so that the tiny, densely blue tower of a silo at one side
feels miles from the quick verticals of trees at the other edge. Rarely
in contemporary painting is gesture so freely but continuously allied
to a unified lyrical vision.
The wonder of truly good painting is that a human eye can convey so
comprehensive a grasp. Viewed together, Bell's paintings suggest that
it's ultimately her affection for the subject (it can't be simply calculation
or preconception) that coheres the impulses of form-aided, of course,
by her considerable abilities and abiding awareness of a formal language
Bell may well have inherited her indifference to passing trends from
her parents Leland Bell and Louisa Matthiasdottir, both artists who
also found inspiration in a renewal of painting traditions. Temma's
paintings, however, are more atmospheric and varied texturally than
her mothers', and they completely sublimate the unforgiving outlines
of her fathers'. These latest paintings confirm that her work is entirely
her own, and her directness-of purpose, perception, and means-vitalizes