Aesthetic Whore

Post-Pop artist John Bell is an indiscriminate genre-blender

Step Two in “facts, fears, myths and legends”: Bell punches the canvas with paint-dipped fists.

“Bail Out!,” 2009

John Bell’s The Burden of Ambition, which runs through Aug. 3 in the elegant downtown Brett Wesley Gallery, is a visual treat that grows sweeter the longer you examine it. Superficially, the vivid colors and Andy Warholian Pop Art-influenced images are immediately pleasing. However, as you look closely, you notice layers of paint, pencils, pens, silkscreen smudges and marks. Suddenly, a picture develops in the viewer’s mind of an artist toiling on the floor, applying brushes, rollers, nails, screening, pastel sticks, rubber mallets, putty knives and anything else he can find. Evidence of the physical creative process resonates in every brushstroke.

Bell is a born artist. His parents recognized his creativity and placed him in private lessons at age 5. He studied still life, landscape, figurative and portrait painting into his teens, graduating from the Art Institute in Pittsburgh (’87). It was a traditional education that Bell has seemingly worked hard to shed, today opting for an approach that playfully subverts much of what he learned.

This playfulness is evident in The Burden of Ambition. The series is Bell’s exploration of Warhol’s prophetic “15 minutes of fame” statement (a paraphrase from a 1968 interview: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”), which has gained validation in our culture of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. In one canvas, a sunglassed woman pulled straight out of a fashion ad opens her mouth wide, teeth perfect, to swallow a cruise missile. Across her face is the phrase: “This Message Was Made Possible Thanks to Social Networking, The Arts, The Future Stars of the World, and People Like You.”

Indeed, Bell simultaneously takes aim at celebrity, art and online interaction in a way that is both humorous and critical. By linking social media to Warhol’s quote, Bell seems to suggest that with a billion people spending billions of minutes a day online, there won’t be enough minutes in the next 10 lifetimes for everyone to get their fame. “Who rises to the top, and who falls through the cracks?” he seems to ask rhetorically. “What do we value as a culture, using these sites as a social barometer?” In any case, Bell’s dense layering of imagery, the explosion of colors (painted with a rubber mallet), represent the force at which all this useless information comes at us.

“John is one of those rare artists who has something compelling to say about the impact of social networking, media and the constant clamoring for success in our 21st-century American culture,” says gallery co-owner Brett Sperry, who discovered Bell at the artist’s show in Art Basel in Miami.

But how does Bell categorize his own work? Pop art, abstract impressionism, pop surrealism, post-agitprop—his approach borrows from so many modes and movements. Where does he place his work in the continuum?

“I call it ‘anthropological expressionism,’ digging my way through the history of contemporary art,” he says. “I usually spend a year or more exploring a certain style, taking from it what I like and incorporating it into my work.”

Bell adds that he has never limited himself to one particular approach—mainly because so many artists have come before him and have taken what they do to logical conclusions. He prefers to stick to poet Ezra Pound’s dictum: “Make it new.”

“I don’t see much room to improve on a [William] De Kooning,” Bell says. “I want to create a new style that’s my own. It’s the biggest challenge for artists working today: finding an original voice when so much has preceded you.”


Although this critic prefers to bask in the surface flash of Bell’s paintings, others have picked up on sociopolitical commentary. Take the gorgeously layered piece “DNA,” which features a red and laughing Felix the Cat, plus the phrase: “Back up your DNA and precious memories only $499.99” Are we to read this sales pitch as humor? Or is there anger at our pop-saturated world nestled within? Unsurprisingly, Bell sees himself as playing two roles. He’s a commentator and someone tasked with creating beauty.

“My paintings can be enjoyed purely as objects of beauty without knowing all the influences and motivations behind them,” he says. “But if the viewer wants to delve deeper, the layers are there. The paintings are ways for me to communicate with an audience. A way to say: ‘This is what I see going on around us; now what do you see?’ That either starts a discussion or keeps the conversation going.”

Bell says a small dose of humor goes a long way, and that he’s a good-natured smart-ass. (“It’s my default mode.”) But he bristles when it’s suggested that the Felix cameo is less a Warholian gesture and more a satire of Warhol. “I love his work and don’t deny the influence and certainly don’t mind the comparisons,” Bell says. “But like any descendant, my aim is to take it further. To not just comment on the surface of things, but to use multiple references, influences and styles to not only create an original look, but to comment more broadly.”

“I am an aesthetic whore, a voracious reader, listener and watcher,” he says. “But when I’m in the studio I shut all that down and trust my instincts.”

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