Thursday, May 1st, 2003

Temma Bell

Bowery Gallery
530 W 25, 4th fl,
New York, NY 10001

April 22-May 17, 2003

Temma Bell Dark Sky over Esja 2002 oil on linen, 32" x 60", courtesy the artist
Temma Bell, Dark Sky over Esja 2002 oil on linen, 32" x 60", courtesy the artist

Matisse/Picasso 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
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 of paint.

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 this show.