|Ghost Child, 2004, oil on canvas, 40 x 45 inches|
|Ghost Child (detail)|
|Ghost Child (detail)|
|L'Histoire du Soldat, 2011, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches|
|Susannah Without the Elders, 2003, oil on canvas, 40 x 45 inches|
Leslie Bell recently retired from St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa after 38 years of teaching and he’s earned the respect of students and professors in the Midwest and beyond. I first met him only recently and was immediately convinced of his positive influence on others. Enthusiasm about painting just flowed from Les in the short time that we spoke, and I knew if given the chance, he’d have a lot more to say.
PB: Your work evokes the painterly tradition and reminds me that paint on canvas can weave tales and change moods. What aspects of painting and its history do you find compelling?
LB: The history of painterly expression goes back to the caves but skips generations along the way. The pendulum swings…loose; tight; loose; tight. What excites me most is a dynamic combination of description and expression. I remember as a little kid marveling at Rembrandt’s Woman at the Half Door at the National Gallery in Washington. One second, the painting was a series of splotches and organic accidents. The next second, a precise sort of light, body language and emotional tone were pouring out of the painting. I love abstraction. I love realism (in the Manet sense) but the seamless combination of the two is where my heart leaps.
In terms of content, the process of experiencing the world, forming it and being formed by it interest me. The position and condition of women and girls especially interest me. Reports from the female side, from Cecily Brown, Berthe Morisot, Hilary Harkness, Karen Finley, Nan Goldin, Lisa Yuskavage, Marlene Dumas are all informative to my work.
Contemporaries like Aron Wiesenfeld, Judith Raphael, Robert Schwartz, Richard Piccolo, Robert Barnes, Susanna Coffey, the Leipzig school, Rackstraw Downes, F. Scott Hess, Tom Uttech, Judith Linhares are inspiring for a variety of reasons—the poetic use of materials, provocative approach to subject or the places they take me to.
Non-formulaic storytelling is very important to me. From Giotto onwards, there have always been artists who bring a private and personal viewpoint to their analysis of human life and values.
PB: Tell me about how you established yourself as a painter and teacher.
LB: My grandmother studied painting at the Corcoran in Washington and my parents were very artful people. There was never a time when making art didn’t interest me. My grade school made yearly field trips to the National Gallery where I fell in love with all sorts of artistic ideas that while over my head, still reverberated as a special sort of truth. First up was always the naked Mercury statue in the entry rotunda. Then on to Gerard David, Titian et al. D. C. wasn’t much of a town for contemporary art at the time.
As far as teaching, I was lured from the East Coast to St. Ambrose by the crafty Father Edward Catich who decided to recruit broadly in the 1960’s. He dismissed me from the art department in my Junior year (I was involved in many of the clichés of the 1960’s) but he saw enough talent in me to contact me while in grad school to apply for a job in the department.
PB: How do you go about making your work and what kinds of challenges have you experienced?
LB: Since my work is improvised and doesn’t rely on models or observation, my working method requires a lot of front-loading. Film, novels, music, and life played out in real time all help me build an archive of possibilities. I certainly keep my eyes peeled when I’m out and about. The years I spent as a street photographer have helped me scoop useful experience from the broader kettle of stimuli in the form of interactions, gestures and changes in the social fabric.
In the studio, I begin with a blank canvas and no ideas. The canvas serves as a screen on which I can imagine random images, stories and compositions. I’m looking for a place to start—a strong-but-vague impulse. From that point on, it’s a process of call-and-response. I react to what’s on the canvas with a move that seems an appropriate extrapolation of the narrative, the color etc. I may not know what the painting is about until it’s almost done if at all. The titles I give paintings go through stages as well until one comes up that positively identifies its uniqueness in my output. Even then, I may take a painting out 3 or 5 years after its ostensible conclusion and re-interpret or refine it more. This is especially true if I really care about the characters and their plight. I want a suitable environment and a promising narrative for them.
The trouble with working in an improvised manner—despite the possibilities of the riches of serendipity—is that I take lots of false steps and some of them are very difficult to dismantle. With no premeditated composition, narrative, psychological color space or meaning, a lot of a painting’s parts end up being at odds with each other. The upside of this quandary is that untying these visual knots seems to make a better person out of me. I have to make sacrifices, prioritize my values within a painting; elaborate the strongest ideas and be prepared to destroy some good things in order to make way for better things. Once in a while, I’ll take photos at several stages during the construction of a painting so that later on, I can remind myself of the stuff I’ve plowed under.
Also, since my work is figurative and deals with selective aspects of description but since I don’t use models or work from observation, I need to be constantly at visual attention as I navigate my world, memorizing as I go. In other words, I need to study for a test but I have no idea what will be on the test.
PB: Which artists do you admire and what is it about their work that moves you?
LB: I’m a virtual fool in my fandom. I have affection and admiration for so many artists. I’m all over the place with contemporary artists. I’m looking carefully at Mark Greenwold right now since I’m going to be painting smaller (I’m carving out a basement studio space as we speak). Virtually any artist using the human figure as a vehicle for commentary and self-examination…Gillian Peterson-Krag, Michael Andrews, Robert Bauer, the Bay Area Figurative painters (especially Elmer Bischoff), Eric Fischl, Will Cotton, Cecily Brown—not as a colorist or even as a painter but as a bawdy narrator of sexual experience.
I follow the arrow that shoots through the work of Titian, Velasquez, Manet. I love Albert York’s potent quietness; Tom Uttech’s awe in the face of nature; John Currin’s moxie and creative ransacking of art history (but not his politics); Neo Rauch’s ambition, imagination and painterly attack; Paula Rego’s humanism; Paula Modersohn-Becker’s tender color and character.
I like work that grows as you approach it. Degas was an experimental painter but you’d never know it from the very narrow vision presented in the popular press. His technical arsenal, while not the bottom-up, deliberate approach of the Renaissance, was full of brilliant responses to happy accidents and an adherence to a fluid definition of realism that precludes a hard crust of finish. His work must be seen in person and up close as well as from a distance. The same goes for de Kooning. The brilliance of his decisions as a designer are, to my way of thinking, more impressive and durable than the action of his paint which is also breathtaking. Tiepolo, Goya and Horst Janssen’s drawing; Vuillard’s intimate complexity; the unique color sensibilities of Paul Klee and Bill Jensen…
PB: What kinds of advice do you have for anyone who plans on teaching at the collegiate level?
LB: I’ll start with something that’s not always obvious to the new professor. Get to know the system in which you’re working. In order to grow a credible program, you have to be willing to work the system and “the system” is large. How money flows, who’s sympathetic to the arts, what committees exert influence, how to defend students against a system that sometimes doesn’t understand wounded souls with talent—it’s all important. You can’t just curl up in your office and play dead. You have to come out and play, get to know everyone, be friendly.
If you teach at the undergrad level, you need to be familiar with the workings and expectations of graduate programs since you’ll be aiming your students in that direction. You’ll need to demonstrate to your administration that art-making is a credible enterprise since the language of art is not universally spoken. You’ll need to project a fierce love of the history and practice of art and not play favorites with style or era. It’s a crime to crank out “mini-yous” when every artist has a distinct voice that needs your help in the shaping.
Encouraging your students’ authentic voice is tough. They may fiercely defend what’s been applauded by inexpert witnesses. Your duty is to help them gain the courage to realize what is truly theirs and what is imposed on them—to illuminate and encourage without imposing. Whatever technique you turn them on to needs to be appropriate to their ideas, at least beyond the intro level. If you help the student realize that their real search is for themselves, they’ll carry the lesson for their whole life.
PB: What do you have planned for the near future?
LB: Since I’ve just retired from the art department at St. Ambrose University, many of my immediate plans have to do with re-jiggering my energy. Figure out new, devious ways to have fun with my wife. Evacuate my old studio and set up a new one. Become better at yoga. Finish the drawings of my neighbors’ three adorable daughters. Figure the best ways to help out at the Figge Art Museum here. Paint small and see how that feels. Re-connect with nature. Visit my family on both coasts more often. Relax. Read. Revel!