With so much renewed interest focused on Larry Bell’s glass boxes in Phenomenal, the Light-Space show at the San Diego Museum of Art, it’s easy to forget that Bell began his career as an abstract painter. Here, he reminds us of that fact with a series of perception-bending works that ask the same question he’s asked all along: what do we know and how do we know it?
Using a Finish Fetish technique he invented years ago and continues to refine, Bell, in six “small figure collages” (2008 to 2011), reframes the age-old epistemological question. He builds multi-layered compositions from metal-coated paper and plastics which he heats in a vacuum press – a method that vaporizes the metals and preserves the compositions but eradicates evidence of their construction, like visible seams, original surface textures and the like.
The pictures invoke a big swath of collage and photo history, from Duchamp and Man Ray to Romare Beardon. They prominently feature torsos, buttocks and thighs in bold juxtapositions, pitting positive and negative shapes against each other in rainbow-tinted shades of black and silver, with occasional bits of strong color. They don’t pretend to be erotic or narrative-figurative in any meaningful sense. The real subject, as it always is with Bell, is the play of light on surface. When those vaporized metals re-solidify they retain a crystalline structure that refracts light prismatically. Colors change, as do our perceptions of spatial depth. Iridescence, the one "constant", gives way to shifting hues of gold, green, red, blue and silver with the slightest change in viewing position. What looks static at first is, in fact, completely fluid.
With these pictures, Bell negates Frank Stella’s proto-Minimalist dictum (“What you see is what you see”) and affirms Duchamp who said, “The viewer completes the work of art”. But even that — the idea of completion — is up for grabs with Bell. As Peter Frank noted: “What you see is never only what you see.” In fact, it “may not be what you see from one moment to the next, and may not even be what is actually there.” Bell’s visual sleights of hand demonstrate how elusive and slippery our perception really is.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Larry Bell @ Toomey Tourell through January 31, 2012.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.