Q & A with artist Michael Bell

24 Jun

A few months ago, I did a 9-day series of Paintings of the Day on the “Ticket to Ride” series of paintings by artist Michael Bell. Here are the paintings in the series, going from top to bottom in order:

The Transfer - Michael Bell “The Transfer”

Room Service - Michael Bell “Room Service”

The Ring - Michael Bell  “The Ring”

“Never Look Back”

Getaway Car - Michael Bell“Getaway Car”

Unfinished Business - Michael Bell“Unfinished Business”

The Meadows - Michael Bell“The Meadows”

Check In, Check Out - Michael Bell“Check In, Check Out”

The N and the R - Michael Bell “The N and the R”

He recently contacted me and offered to answer some of the questions I asked on the blog regarding both the specific paintings and the philosophical questions they raised about art in general. Below are my questions and his responses:

Q. In the fifth painting of the series, “Getaway Car,” there is a
prominent human face on the left side of the painting. What does this face
represent/symbolize?

A. Ah, the taxi driver looking into the taxi’s rear view mirror…let me
address question 2 first, which will also answer this one…it will make
more sense if I do.

Q. Why did you choose to paint a frame around the main part of the
composition of the third painting, “The Ring,” as well as the first
painting, “The Transfer?”

A. I actually began each of the nine paintings in the series by blocking in a
frame with paint, not exactly sure why I was doing it at first, but it
became an unconscious decision that came into focus as I decided to only
leave the frame in completely in “The Transfer”, “The Ring”, “Never Look
Back” and “The N and the R” (Works, 1, 3, 4, and 9).  This became a
symbolic homage to the process behind the paintings, which involved
collaging together flashbacks from events torn from my memory and
reconstructing them into a cohesive narrative.  It also served two other
subtle purposes: 1) They could aesthetically become linked to the look of
old polaroid snapshots in shape, and 2) they helped me separate two of the
main characters present in the story.  The works with the frame are all
about the girl, while the other works introduce the “hitter” (a hitman),
which is the prominent human face (the taxi driver) on the left side of
“Getaway Car”.  He’s also present as the figure to the left peering into
the trunk at you, the viewer, in “Unfinished Business” in Work 2 “Room
Service” (the one you seemed to like a lot), “The Meadows” and “Check In,
Check Out”, which is the same room now all cleaned up as in work 2, “Check
In, Check Out.”  I like to think of the 3rd character as being “the
audience.”  I did enjoy working with the frame to add in text, drips,
shadowing, to break up the space, place clues and also play with the
perspective.  Oh, and the water splash in “Check in, Check Out” you
mentioned in your blog – it’s symbolic of emotions about to erupt, and it
becomes another common thread throughout the narrative, which, as you
correctly put it, is meant to be viewed together to tell a much larger
tale although each work is also meant to be able to stand on its own
(which is much different than narratives written as chapters in a book).

I used myself as the model for those figures, sometimes working from life
as well as reference photos I’d take for the paintings.  The reason for
nine works was another metaphor to symbolize “nine lives”.  The paintings
also play off one another in other unique ways.  For instance, the first
painting is like a mirror image of the last painting and the second
painting is purposely the same room as the second to last painting.

Q. What inspired you to paint this series?

A. That’s a loaded question.  On the surface it’s about a woman on a subway
platform, traveling to destinations in her mind as she awaits her train.
In the end, I left it up to the viewer’s interpretation whether she never
left the station, whether the series all took place in her mind, whether
it’s foreshadowing all that is about to happen, or whether it actually
happened and the order of works was intended just to mislead and confuse.
Beneath the actual surface, the series is really about murder, and each
painting went through a series of so many changes there’s actually
paintings underneath paintings, like for example in “The Ring.”  It began
as a busy subway platform, then I added in two lovers embracing, then
eventually I painted everyone out of it and left the phone dangling off
the hook.  I felt, like the series, that millions of people have
contemplated thoughts on these platforms so the energy of the people would
be there, even when the station is at its quietest – like the calm before
the storm.  The series is about contemplating and going through with
murder and more specifically, how it could go down, would it right a
wrong…it was my way of “thinking out loud on canvas” as a way of dealing
with a series of tragic betrayals – giving them a constructive as opposed
to a destructive voice.  It was such a huge part of mine and my wife’s
life for a time that I felt it necessary to “work them out” on heroic
sized canvases.  This became my first large-scale series of paintings at
that point in my career, and I chose a square to symbolize the
larger-than-life sized feelings we both had, in addition to feeling
“boxed-in” to a situation contemplating ways out.  It eventually led me to
writing my first screenplay, “Ticket to Ride,” inspired by the paintings.

Q. You’re quoted on your website as saying about TTR that “I want the
viewer to become my accomplice, to own the moment, reinterpret the scene
as if it
were their own and construct their own narratives.” Are you of the opinion
that it is appropriate or better that viewers attribute their own meanings
to artworks rather than necessarily considering the artist’s intent? Where
does the true meaning of an artwork come from, in your opinion?

A. I believe it’s important to involve the viewer.  When I first saw
Caravaggio’s “Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes” at the Walters
Art Museum in Baltimore they purposely hung the larger-than-life sized
painting high enough that you felt as though if you stood in front of the
painting you would catch his severed head in your hands if the painting
were to come to life.  Everyone that looks at art brings their own point
of view into it, which naturally comes from their own experiences.  So why
leave them out of the equation.  I leave my work open to more than one
interpretation.  I’m ok revealing my own intentions, but I definitely
wouldn’t discount or shoot down what someone else sees in my paintings.
That’s the beauty of art.  It connects on emotional levels and in primal
ways that precedes language, so pictures can also create universal
conversations.  Any artist that tells you they’re just creating “art for
art’s sake” and they don’t care what the audience thinks is full of shit.

Q. It’s often said about books that they are at least somewhat
autobiographical on the part of the authors. Do you think that art can be
autobiographical on the part of the artist, and if so, is the TTR series
at all autobiographical for you?

A. I think all art is autobiographical.  It tells the viewer what we’re
feeling at that moment, what we’re interested in or who we’re interested
in, and what we want to have a conversation about with the world.  Even if
it’s non-representational.  For instance, in Jackson Pollack’s outpouring
of his soul into his expressionistic splatter paintings… While I can’t
remember specifics from one work of his to the next, I do know what a
“Jackson Pollack” painting looks like.  And in being able to associate
with his style, it tells me about him as a person.  I think if you look at
all my work closely enough you will know a bit about me as a person, or at
least what I want you to know.  It shows it’s face in Rembrandt’s
extremely candid and descriptive self-portraits, and in Eric Fischl’s
entire body of work from his early psycho-sexual suburban life paintings
to his more recent portraits series.  So yes, my TTR series is
autobiographical.  All my works inject that realism into them.  In my
latest series “Seven Scars” ( http://mbellart.com/scars.htm )  for
instance, it is an actual series of autobiographical narrative paintings
based on the life of Mob Wife Toni Marie Ricci.  And while it’s “her
story” I was painting about, I wouldn’t be able to paint it with any
authenticity if I couldn’t relate to it and have “lived it” on some level
in my own life already.  Those paintings were created entirely from my
point of view, based on conversations her and I had, but ultimately, I was
her “viewer” injecting my own take on her truths “visually” for the
public.  I also included myself in some of those paintings, like in the
one with the gun to her head in Scene 4. Now that I finished those works
I’m returning to the easel to complete my “Carnevale Italiano” paintings,
which are actually linked to my TTR paintings as a “prequel” series.
They’re at http://mbellart.com/prequel.htm and are also very
autobiographical.  It’s me as a young artist in the series, and it
features my best friend Dominic Capone in a few of the paintings, who just
happens to be Al Capone’s Great Nephew.  I’m finishing these paintings,
which I’m planning to debut on Dominic’s new reality tv show that’s airing
this Fall called “the Capone’s.”

Q. What is your definition of art?
A. Art, for me, is a constructive way to give form and meaningful expression
to an internal experience (to help express what life throws my way, and to
either de-construct or re-construct memories or events to help put them
into their proper context).  It’s a way to learn more about myself.  I
think, generally speaking, the definition of all art is self-expression on
some level, which could take form through our subject matter, the way we
interpret or re-interpret it, the way we work with our chosen mediums
right down to the way we choose to present our art to the public.
Everything matters.  And ultimately, art matters.

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