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  Gerry BELL


Gerry Bell CV (PDF)

Citycity
1 August to 25 August 2012

This series of urban landscapes was painted in 2000 but has not been previously exhibited. Following an unexpected offer of an exhibition for them this year, I returned to the theme, adding new works. The show comprises 14 works from 2000 and 6 works from 2012.

The paintings build generic places from details of architecture, attendant figures and transport, occasion or event, season or hour, perspective or projection, focus or volume. Yet the pictures never quite add up to a cohesive whole, never quite break down to easy parts. Parts are diverse, graded and slippery, wholes are full of holes. The pictures juggle impressions and make for a restless, uneasy grasp of places and pictures.

They started out as studies in architecture that would highlight the intersection between presentation and representation, or an object displayed and an object pictured. Most architecture is about creating a striking impression as much as any practical function and such impressions ultimately involve pictorial terms, a point of view and framing, lighting, scale and focus. Architecture thus shares the theme of display with some of my preceding series. But unlike visual merchandising, sculptures, pop singers and prepared food, presentation for architecture tends to invite wider design, civic planning, landscape gardening and zoning or neighbourhood. It is easy enough to isolate a single building of course, but this rather restricts an appreciation of its appearance in a given location or context. Once I noticed how a whole landscape smoothly followed from considerations of a building as presentation, the theme expanded. It was not clear whether presentation was now of an expanded view of architecture or a compressed view of a city. The pictures sample a grey area, or perhaps ‘cityness’. In works from 2000 prominence is often given to weather and time of day to emphasise the breadth of factors available, in works from 2012, to foreground figures and situations.

The urban landscape, while pervasive in mass media, is not quite conspicuous or easily recognised there. The series refers less to an obvious print genre than a broader one shared with painting. Having dwelt upon print legacies through preceding series, this seemed less of a priority now. At the same time, refinements to my technique made it tempting to apply them to a more traditional genre. Urban landscapes traditionally range from a utopian formal programme (usually with geometric ideals) to social criticism (mostly humanitarian ideals). Formalism is either optimistic for technological progress or nostalgic for a classical past. Social perspectives are pessimistic and variously deplore poverty, crime and oppression. My series falls somewhere in between.

Works draw attention to how an impression of an object draws upon circumstance. A building’s lighting scheme is best seen in the dark for instance, an imposing forecourt best admired with an empty standing zone. No one view will accommodate all of a building or city’s assets, and any sequence or conjunction would only be one such combination. In practice, of course we happily switch between views for convenience. We see with many glances. We variously note a city’s restorations, revivals and revisions, for example, accepting a degree of compromise and inconsistency in priorities. Similarly, we are untroubled by confusions over false facades and forced perspectives, a fashionable folly and future landmark, faux ruins and failed construction. We disregard some views in order to adopt others.

My pictures amplify this practice. They build a perspective from parts of architecture (by hour, weather, scale, focus, etc) as much as build architecture from a perspective (wrapped in other resources). Structure and content are a two-way and tentative affair. As with preceding work, fundamentals of form are exchanged for pictorial fragments that cue an object by angle, light and other circumstance.  A fragment links variously to others by one or some qualities – may maintain light at the expense of proportion, or vice versa, scale at the expense of weather, focus at the expense of angle and so forth. It accommodates conflicts within larger, looser arrangements. Here this method finds not just an exemplary theme in urban qualities or ‘cityness’ but a model for pictorial negotiation and navigation, a ‘cityicity’. The multiple, circular character of the name catches a restless reflection to method.
                                
In 2000 the series seemed liberating, whimsical works that recovered traditional means and greatly expanded my scope. They may not have been exactly utopian, but there was a more open-ended prospect in moving beyond the theme of conspicuous presentation. On returning to them twelve years later, I read them quite differently. What had seemed carefree and exploratory now seemed guarded and calculated.  The many disjunctures and improbabilities can look like a deliberate ‘bad’ painting or a passive/aggressive sabotage of standards. Or they may flag a tacit lack of commitment and underlying stability. The pictures now toy with bad faith, suspicion and a disturbing disengagement. Cityicity is where the city becomes anywhere and everywhere, a hollow, globalised conceit, where the fixation on facades and so many facets turns facetious, no longer conceals a profound corruption and conspiracy, but rather taunts it.

This view only deepens my appreciation of the series. No doubt it reflects the intervening years, the aftermath of 9/11 and impact of globalisation, my later, more political pictures and growing hindsight. But the divergence of interpretation here is surely a measure of the potency and relevance of the pictures. In rejecting a utopian formalism I had supposed I was granting the urban landscape more expansive views, a more accommodating genre. This turns out to entail social criticism.

For more information on my earlier work see http://gerrybellart.wordpress.com

Finally, I acknowledge a six-month studio residency at Maroondah Art Gallery in Ringwood, without which I could not have completed new works for this exhibition.

Gerry Bell
July 2012