In BQ’s front window, the title of Dirk Bell’s exhibition, “Schön und Gut” (Beautiful and Good), was spelled out in the panels of a shelf structure. Bell has designed and, since 2007, incorporated into his art a rectilinear alphabet based on divisions of a square. The words the letters formed here, suggesting a conflation of esthetics and ethics, were so radically stylized they were barely legible. These abstractions, in the sense of both visual formalism and linguistic generalization, seem intended to counterbalance Bell’s formative fixation on what might be the least rational of artistic movements, late Romantic Symbolism. Similarly, the conjunction of morality and beauty might be intended to fortify the chimerical ungroundedness of Bell’s artistic world. When his work originally emerged, just over a decade ago, his talent for reproducing the addled effects of fin-de-siècle mannerism (neatly, at the end of another century) was astonishing. Out of the numinous illusionism of his large pencil drawings, a hashish- and opium-fueled world of licentious nymphs and decadent putti was summoned.
This was the early 2000s, when European art was enmeshed in intricate networks of art historical referencing, and Bell’s sampling of late 19th-century imagery, filtered through its appropriation in the graphic art of 1960s psychedelia, seemed very much of the moment. With the deftest of overpainting, he would adapt an old landscape painting, picked up at a flea market, translating its innocuous sentimentality into disturbing perversity by eliciting symbolistic ghosts. Bell’s appropriative basis remains, despite his flirting with formalistic and textual elements. The metaphysical connotations of his sculpturally realized words are less important than their ability to emulate the graphic symbolism associated with the kind of esoteric 1960s subcultures which equated the mystique of transcendental aspiration with the elusive opacity of the signs they used to publicize it.
BQ’s main room was dominated by the approximately 13-foot-wide painting Life is a joke, does not anchor me to the ground (2013), its splattered and stained canvas resembling a slab of weathered concrete over which Bell brushes the image of a naked adolescent girl emerging from billowing clouds. A freestanding screen, spelling the words DENKEN and ENDE (“to think” and “end”), was placed so that the canvas’s panorama could be viewed only through a lattice of lettering, as though the foundations of the artist’s practice were reasserting themselves through the mesh of its diversification. Bell’s superimposition of picture and text corresponded to his interpretation of each as equivalent forms of mannerist artifice, disconnected from any specific referent.
On another shelf structure (HAH AHA, 2013), a group of found objects—a Jean Michel Jarre LP, a bar of fancy Italian chocolate, a pair of cast hands raised in prayer that might have been copied from an El Greco monk—suggested a compendium of source keys for the pictorial and design languages that Bell has developed. Languid watercolor nudes, rising from the print of faded newspapers, intimate a tautological spiral of cultural reiteration, in which signs endlessly emerge from existing signs. This is a hermetic art in which there is no “real,” only a self-enclosing hall of self-propagating reflections. But the air of confinement is emblematic in that Bell is simultaneously practicing and critiquing the retrospection of contemporary pop culture, in which every image and sound implies another which preexists and presages it.
PHOTO: View of Dirk Bell’s exhibition “Beautiful and Good,” 2013; at BQ.