Jason Robert Bell:In preparation for my upcoming exhibition in Chicago, I invited three close friends, all of who are talented artist within their own right, to ask me a few questions about my work. Paul Nudd, Scott Wolniak, and Chris Uphues, all established Chicago Artist, all radically different from the other in their processes and thinking from myself and each other. I have know both Scott and Chris for over 15 years, and Paul although a more recent friend, has followed by work for years and thankfully been a ongoing patron of my efforts.
Scott Wolniak: These are mostly small, or at least smaller than your previous series shown at Thomas Robertello Gallery. Is that a decision based on any specific conceptual or practical concerns? Does the fact that these are portable and modular play into it at all?
Jason Robert Bell: The change in scale was at first a practical manner, I had to move to a smaller studio, so it made sense to adapts. After I did a few pieces, it made sense to continue working on a smaller scale and work through many ideas in a fast about of time. I have had some of the images in my mind for years; others were born yesterday or better yet tomorrow.
Scott Wolniak: Are these characters envisioned/ conceived and then produced? or are they more intuitive?
Jason Robert Bell: Each on is a mixture, but for the most part they are organic creations on the canvas. I am often trying to access the dream logic I experience while sleeping, or creating bastard children between older ideas and, characters from past work.
Scott Wolniak: Can you describe your process? I'm especially interested in hearing about the interplay of loose & tight, patterned & gestural. This contrast looks great and seems to occur in many of these pieces. It gives an interesting quality of energy and movement to these otherwise very sculptural pictures.
Jason Robert Bell: I usually have three or four paintings going simultaneously. I start by doodling with a japanese brush and india ink on Bristol board, usually I do a few self portraits, figure studies, a still life, then once I have a few forms and ideas going, I recreate the forms in a 3-D modeling program on my computer. I do this mainly to play around with light and shadow ideas in a fast way. In the past I would make figures out of clay and use actual lights on the models, but using the computer makes it faster, and I can play more with the color and texture. It also saves space. I try to always think of the Fauve painters for color in the lighting ideas, although that does not always come across. I go over old photo and art magazines, and pull out good textures and patterns. As for what patterns and texture I use, the main choice is about how to create space in the image, or push against the space and create a more iconic image. It is at its best when both happen. I start laying out the canvas with what I have collected. Once I have a few layers going, there is an awkward stage, where I have to figure out what will make or break the painting, I'll stop working, lift weights, go for a long walk, lay out some Tarot cards, drink a cup of coffee or some cheap wine, or just go brood in a dark room, go to a used book store, until I have a revelation idea about the piece.
I start spraying enamel and dropping bits of raw pigment into the still wet epoxy. I like the idea that the paintings exist in a forever wet environment, the pigments trapped in the epoxy aid in that effect. I paint up the forms to key up the forms and colors, with higher contrast, and repeat the process till I feel that the painting has given me a sense of it's own self, and I have a sense of awe. It is complete when I have lost myself in the image, if the process has become magical, if I am surprised by the final product.
With my sculptures, they begin with a found objects, usually some sort of discarded plastic toy that I find on the street, or a junk inflatable from the dollar store, which I cast in paper, and mix with actual clay sculpture figures and heads that I create and then cast in paper. I learned how to cast paper with methyl cellulose paste when I worked for Kiki Smith. Prior to that I was using duct tape, and the things would fall apart. I fill the paper cast with spray foam, and try to put it together in an unexpected way. Then I use colored and textured papers, collage, and finally paint to fight with or enhance the forms. Once I have the general design done I give the sculptures a few layers of epoxy or acrylic resin, to add strength. Just as with a two-dimensional painting, it deals with the third dimension in terms of illusion of space. A sculpture deals with a series of two dimensional images that are compressed into a four dimensional experience, this is paramount in my sculptural thinking. How does the 3-D piece transforms it's own image when you move around it?
Scott Wolniak: These seem like hybrids between the tribal, the spiritual and the cosmic. Can elaborate on the form/ content relationship?
Jason Robert Bell: One of the dogmas I experienced in art school was that, the form is the content, which always stuck me as a zen riddle. That being said, I would say that all those three concepts are the same thing. Tribal, Spiritual, and Cosmic, could also be Tragedy, Ecstasy, and Doom, right? I am interested in how technological and prefabricated forms are similar to tribal fetishes. It has been a life long goal of mine to access the raw power of what is called tribal or primitive art, without being a cultural imperialist. I am a Texas mongrel, but and have a significant about of Native American and Scottish heritage in my family and I spent a lot of time pouring over books on folk lore and artworks of those people(s) and then that lead into other parts of the world, other totems and masks. However, one's ethnic background does not matter in art. Artists pull upon whatever they need to make their work meaningful, I use anything and everything I can get my hands on. I am well aware of the history of modern artist plundering other cultures, and these works are not generated from any direct reference to any particular culture.
If anything I am plundering the plunders. I have always seen Les Mademoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso, as a place to start. In fact years ago, I did a painting of the Medical Student and the Sailor that Picasso edited out of the final work. When I painted that, I realized that how important the original was for me. I often think about the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, as a starting place when I am creating a head, any head. The Fireclown portraits are my most direct attempt at creating a fusion of these ideas.
One of the paintings that really struck me when I first saw it was Adam and Eve by Enrico Baj, which shows a hackneyed academically painted couple being confronted by a hulking crudely rendered almost childlike image of Jehovah, I prefer to think about form and content in that way. The shifts in form create the hybrids between the figuratively rendered, the geometric, and gestural strokes that are depictions of our actual reality. We are all gross bodies in space and time, but also thinking machines, and living energy.
Scott Wolniak: Does this work reference particular myths, legends, and deities?
Jason Robert Bell: Yes, it does, everything I do always has a mythical aspect in a very board sense of that term from Homer and Campbell to Roland Barthes, however my methods are not in the modus operandi of a illustrator, I discover the reference as I am making the work, often times I realize that I am making something that could be seen as a certain archetype or mythical character. I then try to fuse other ideas into the character to make the character something more than a mere image of something from myths. I have always enjoyed books of symbols, the occult, divination, alchemy, and general esoterica, not so much as actual belief in supernatural forces, but because of all of the wonderful images and visual thought systems that can be accessed in the creation of works.
In my present work one of my primary goals is to discover new myths, new legends, new deities, who have been born on my canvas. The titles for the pieces usually is some sort of word play based on the myths that the piece recalls in me, but I try to push the title into a different space. Picasso said the title is the key to the painting, it unlocks the door for the viewer, that is why I would never not give a piece a title. When an artist calls a piece Untitled, it is a slap in the face to the viewer.
Scott Wolniak: Would you describe this work as more personal, emotive or intellectual?
Jason Robert Bell: It depends on the work; hopefully all three are touched upon in each piece. I don't know how any sane person could make work that is not all three of those things in some fashion. Often times I am thinking about what most people would think of as kitsch subjects, mostly from the fantasy genres, such as chimera and monsters, or low class painting subjects such as clowns, recently I have been really interested in the whistling midget gag. Which I am using because it is building off of a line I found in Twilight of the Idols, by my main man Nietzsche, He is talking about Socrates and his criminal nature, with the old maxim: monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo, which means " a monster in the face, a monster in the soul."
My interest in these subjects is to reinvest them with meaning, to treat them as just as worthy or profound as anything else that could be made an artwork . I am not interested in irony as a end in itself, only as a tool in a larger range of tools. When I am working on a piece, once the image has been arrived at, it tends to be an intellectual activity. The question becomes, "How to best create powerful images using the colors, illusions of form, and other formal needs?". The emotional appears takes care of itself, when you focus on creating an arresting image. Even though there is a lot of humor in my work, I am deadly serious about it. I am not kidding around about all these absurd things. I treat everything I create as if I were painting something sacred, because I am.
Paul Nudd: I am impressed by Kala's powerful buttocks and muscular breasts, but the part of her anatomy I fear the most are her teeth. In the Kala series, you made several enormous portraits that emphasize her mossy yellow teeth. They seem to epitomize her raw power and breathtaking physicality. As portrait painting, it's really weird, but as a politically charged, a historical depiction of wild and unbridled femininity Kala is really, really weird. Kala seems to be this amalgamation of Chewbacca, Conan the Barbarian, and Ripley from Aliens. If we can agree that Kala is a totally loaded symbol of all sorts of things, then how do you mentally organize all these references that Kala inevitably conjures? Is your approach to the "politics of representation" calculated, or do you just make in a flurry and let us, the viewers. Sort it out?
Jason Robert Bell: I little of both and a lot of neither, Kala in many ways is a much more personal creation, she is a real alter ego of mine, in straight Jungian terms she is my Anima, the feminine component of my unconscious male psyche. She came into being after a few years of reading way too many crackpot human origin theories. I have always seen her as my take on the de Kooing Woman paintings, which are his best works. Kala is a de Kooing Woman updated for our time. In the back of my mind I knew that she was a loaded character in terms of gender issues, "politics of representation", and so forth, but as far as I can tell all representations are loaded, aren't they? People tend to see what they want when they look at those paintings. It is funny how many women have contacted me thanking me for painting them.
For me the Kala paintings were very earnest attempts at painting a monster as the beautiful hero. In all my work, I am aware that people are going to see what they want to see, and various political, and social ideas are dealt with in the work. I am always happy to discuss these ideas with people, but in the end what matters is the artwork is a powerful image that bears repeated viewing as it does effect people in a meaningful way.
Paul Nudd: In the Caveman Robot Gigantic Mega Annual 2004, you contributed a very memorable section called "the Hunted." I was amazed that your raw draftsmanship translated so well and so professionally to a comics format. The text was pretty hilarious, too - mostly just primordial caveman gibberish and Jabba-the-Hut type grunts and groans. I immediately thought, " Wow! This could be 1000 pages!" During your drawing time, do you often tackle the comics form? And to what degree do you see The Hunted, as being an experimental comic? Are there any future plans to produce any more printed matter? For example, when can I expect the 1000 page cloth-bound JRB mid-career monograph!?
Jason Robert Bell: Thanks Paul, that story was done page by page without a story in mind, the text was taken from the Mangani, Ape to English Dictionary from the back of a Tarzan novel. So the Caveman people are speaking the same language as the Apes are speaking, You can actually go online and search for the Dictionary and translate the text so it it will make sense. I don't do enough comics, because for me it is really hard to draw the same exact character over and over the same way. Also, I love comics, but I also hate them, and I have to allow myself to do them, in my own way, on my own terms. I have an idea for a large graphic novel that would entail every idea I have ever had as one giant narrative, but it might be another ten years before I get to it.
Paul Nudd: I'm interested in your interest in Moby Dick. In fact, the last time I read the book; I stopped often to take "the Bell perspective" on many passages. I find it hard to believe that you are not enthralled with Melville's enormous, amorphous ball of satanic pus-sludge, the whale. Could you consolidate your thoughts on Melville's beast? Where does Ahab stand in the dark, all-knowing netherworld of Bell?
Jason Robert Bell: Moby Dick is the American Codex, Orson Wells (speaking of another charismatic megafauna) said that everything one can say about the United States is absolutely true. It is the greatest place in the world and the root of all evil. I see The Whale as that collective, overall THING, that make us keep on fighting. The Whale is the giant awesome wrongness, the wound of being that has crossed all of us at some point. Revenge is one of the most powerful reasons to live, not small person revenge, but that truly lively revenge. Ahab is the avatar of that. Ahab was an exceptional man, a perfect man whose was twisted and disabled by the Whale, which created a new being. A fusion of the two beings, the living struggle that brings out the best and the worst in humans. Moby Dick is the United States of America; Ahab is a Gnostic Adam throwing a fecal smeared stone up at God's laughing intangible face. Anyone who is a full realized person has Ahab inside them in some form.
Paul Nudd: As a follow-up question, are you interested at all in Lovecraft's Yogsothoths? Or maybe the slimy mutant foreskin piles of William. S. Burroughs? When I think of your images in the abstract, I always think of these greased-up, musclely, over-sexed mutant super/anti-heroes that sparkle and sweat a lot. All of these iconic fictional characters seem to bubble-up from a similar place...but where?
Jason Robert Bell: For me Lovecraft, is about the creation of a new mythology as a tool in the creation of fiction. I think what he and W.S.B. have in common is the more ancient outlook on the divine, which is an adversary system. There are powers out there in the universe, things that go bump in the night, but they are so bizarre, so outside our human understanding that to place eyes upon them would drive you insane. Monstrous forces that direct our living world, just as the elements control the weather. The artist no longer is actively forming their images at some point as the images have taken on a life of their own. The the artist is portal, much like Lovercraft to forces beyond themselves.
What is that W.S.B' quote? Something to do with, If he was a truly great writer he could write something that would kill someone when they read it. My characters, are formed from my unconscious, my dreams, from doodles in the sketchbook. I often think of William Blake's and Max Beckmann's characters that are old and new gods merged with ideas from the everyday world, idealized fantasies, and dark suppressed society frustrations. I am creating the world I see when I close my eyes, the world that exists around me like shield when I walk down the street. A world that has meaning and power, I am painting what I am, a monster, something that is outside the norm, that makes this world more meaningful.
Paul Nudd: Do you ever feel like you're digging yourself an enormous hole with each new piece? I mean, I'm sympathetic to projects that are set up to have no end, but your process catapults this sensibility into the realm of ridiculousness. I may be a little jealous of your productivity, but do you ever feel amazingly overwhelmed and overloaded? Will there ever be a day that Jason Robert Bell doesn't go for broke?
Jason Robert Bell: Paul you Are too kind. Broke is what it is all about. The fact that I am so bad with money, is a great limitation to my work, It forces me to dumpster dive for materials, and beg my friends to join the Friends of Bell, in order to make ends meet. I don't really feel overwhelmed or overloaded, however I get that a lot from other people. Apparently I am always overwhelming people, coming on too strong, not playing it cool, which is fine. The act of being an artist is ridiculous, I try to embrace that absurdity. Last year I was invited and given a nice stipend to do a Three day outdoor performance/exhibition in San Francisco, which I called The Twilight Kingdom. It entailed a dozen small scale sculptures hidden all over one of the city parks, and I spent the entire time of the exhibit on eight foot stilts and wearing a giant "Emperor Norton" mask. I was trying to make a connection between the invisible homeless population of the city and invisible worlds of nature and the imagination. After a few hours of standing around getting ignored by people, while their dogs urinated on my sculptures, I kept thinking about what Werner Hezog said about how the world turns artist into clowns. A good friend of mine, the painter Kari Gatzke, once told be that my strength was that I was not afraid to make an ass of myself, which I took as a great positive compliment.
If you're going to devote yourself to being an artist, you have to be willing to give it everything toyou have, or go do something else. The world needs doctors, and plumbers, not artists, The artist needs the world. My projects end and begin and are restarted when am able to do them. My only fear is that I will not be able to create everything I need to before my time on earth runs out. There is so much that I have to do.
Paul Nudd: The scale of your paintings are often really quite large. I'm wondering if there's a conscious relationship between the scale of, say, your Kala paintings and the scale of the rest of the known science fiction universe? Book covers and board games and modules are always pretty dinky, it's so rare to see these forms blown up to the size of religious mysticism. Could you outline the decisions you make in regards to scale?
Jason Robert Bell: Scale has always been an important part of my work, My father, Robert Bell was a commercial artist and he painted and worked on billboards, giant signs that where all over Houston, Texas, where I grew up. When I was very little, two or three he re-did the hangar of the Goodyear blimp that was stationed in town. My mother took my sister and I to visit while he was working on it and we saw the giant blimp come down and land in the hanger. My father was always working on thumbnails for signs at the kitchen table, that weeks later would become a giant reality. In my current work all of the paintings are tiny compared to the Kala paintings, which frankly could have been bigger. Since I lost my bigger studio, I had to work in a smaller space, to be practical and adapt to the current situation, and make the best of it, I like to work fast and these small works are more like Icon or altar paintings, the way the Kala paintings and drawings are getting into the domain of murals. The giant diagram/map/comic drawings I was making before the Kala series were at the truly outside of human scale, but filled with tiny details at the same time.
The imagination of the child is able to make shifts in scale, however there is little or no mixture of scales, Later is becomes more codified in adolescence with things like model planes and trains, or a science fiction universe, my imagination was more effected by Ray Harryhausen's work. Scale is a game for the Artist, traveling inside and outside of scale as if one is a self-aware Lemuel Gulliver. Shifts in scale are shifts in perception and on a deeper level the very fabric of our reality. The giant pygmy becomes the dwarf titan, the micro and macro folding upon themselves and changing how we see ourselves in the context of our reality.
Paul Nudd: Give us a crash course in the Jason Robert Bell Library of Weird Fiction. Who do you hold in highest regard? What are the most attractive and compelling aspects of the Sci-Fi genre? Would you say that most of your major influences are literary? Do you ever consider yourself a "fan."
Jason Robert Bell: I think I am going to disappoint you here, Paul, I do not consider myself a fan of anything, There is something sad about fans something that goes against being an artist. A fan is a hyper-consumer, and the artist is a creator. You can not be both. Why buy something when you can make it yourself better. I would not say that I am actually a traditional Sci-Fi or Fringe Lit, reader, I hate to say this but for the most part in my opinion most Sci-Fi fans are pretty limited thinkers. Some of the most flatfooted and literal minded people I have ever meet have been at comic book conventions. As far as I can tell they are somewhat devoid of their own imaginations and plug into a prefab world that allows them to enjoy the benefits of the imagination without the dirty work. The best Science Fiction is exploration of the human imagination, such as Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury. Childhood's End by Clarke, might be one of the best books I've ever read, in terms of a straight story.
I have way to many books, like most people the first real books I got into outside of school, were used cheap paperbacks, The Beats, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Hess, Henry Miller, Robert Graves, John Gardner, and Robertson Davies. I really do enjoy old pulps like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and Lester Dent, and there are too many comic books to list. I went through a few years where I was only reading non-fiction philosophy and theology, writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Elaine Pagels, Harlod Bloom, Joseph Campbell, Neil Forsyth, and Donna Kossy. If I had to pick my favorites writers, in no particular order, it would be Philip Jose Farmer, Philip K. Dick, Alan Moore, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jack Kirby. In terms of inspiration, one of the greatest book(s) I've ever read was the Promethea series by Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III. The closest I have ever come to fandom, would be going to a meeting of Philip Jose Farmer devotes and getting to meet the aged writer himself, which was a bizarre experience to say the least. Although sometimes the best thing to read would be a volume of The World Book Encyclopedia cover to cover, K is a good one.
Paul Nudd: It is also evident that you take the history of painting quite seriously, too. Are you more into classical modes of narrative and allegorical painting? Do you ever worry about being viewed through the murky fake lens of post-modern wankery? I'm asking this because you seem so "old school" in a lot of ways....
Jason Robert Bell: There is a great monologue by the actor Robert Townsend, about how when he was a kid he wanted to be Errol Flynn, wanted to star in swashbuckler movies, have sword fights, and "fight for the Queen of England", but when he went to Hollywood, all he could get to read for was pimps and junkies. This is what it felt like when I went to art school, I wanted to talk about Joseph Campbell and they wanted to talk about Josef Albers. I thought is was my duty to reveal mystic truths, but they wanted to talk about the picture plane and the paintness of painting paintings of paint for the sake of paint. It was all formalism and no deeper motivations beyond the forms.
The history of figurative paintings is a dynamic part of my imagination. Rubens' giant battle and hunting paintings, such as The Hippopotamus Hunt, are perhaps the greatest painting in history, second only to The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, which I think is the greatest painting ever. However, I am not interested in nostalgic retreats into academic painting, part of what made the great paintings of the past important was that they were created in a time and a place. Jackson Pollack's One is the greatest painting of it's time. I got really tired of the chess game with Duchamp, the brinkmanship of art endgames while I was still in school. I decided that I was going to make the work that I wanted to make, to be the active agent of what I enjoyed about art, and to not have any limits about what I could or could not do. I am an allegorical thinker, I create paintings, but also produce and star in theater pieces, create experimental videos, and publish comic books. I have been working on a giant animation project, that will take up most of next year.
I am more interested in a more "old school" understanding of what it means to be an artist, as inventor, thinker, gadfly, and troublemaker. I am always trying to be more than a simple maker of images, making the same images over and over.The concept of pictorial statis is for me the evil to fight against. It does make it harder to market oneself, but anything worth doing, is worth doing right. I never had a choice about what else I could do with my life, I was an artist from day one. There was nothing else I could have done, so if I am going to give my life to something, I need to give it my all, to attempt at greatness. A great artist attempts to transcend the media they use, I think an important personal model for myself would be artist such as Wallace Berman and Yves Klein, or better yet for that matter, Aleister Crowley. The artist as magician, in a older sense of that word. Someone who attempts to make the world more magical, who is not bound to any limits beyond their own.
Chris Uphues: What is your first memory of kindness?
Jason Robert Bell: That is a tough question, my family was always kind to me as a child. My early childhood was filled with love and kindness, especially from my Mother, Deborah, but nothing sticks out as a moment where I understood that. My mother encouraged me to explore my imagination, and my father was very playful and silly with me. My mother would pick him up from work and he would swing his giant suntanned arm over the back of the bench seat in the car, I would spend the ride how pulling on his arm hair, poking his tattoos, pinching him, I was amazed at his arm, I saw that one day my body would be very much like his, he never said a word. In hindsight, I realized that it must have hurt him a little. It was like the Chuck Jones cartoon, Feed the Kitten, with the kitten sleeping on top of the giant Bulldog.
Chris Uphues: Do you prefer to be inside or outside?
Jason Robert Bell: I spend a lot of time, in the studio working, or at the computer, or reading, I prefer living and working in the same space, I sometimes have to force myself to go outside, but once I am out in the world I enjoy it, I enjoy being in the world, watching people, making mental maps of where I am going , where I have been. I enjoy being in nature. The sky is very important to me. I like getting lost in the world, and finding new places. I think I am always inside my head, always thinking about my art in some fashion, so in someways I am always inside my studio, the curse of an artist.
Chris Uphues: Would you consider yourself as a quiet, calm person or an active person?
Jason Robert Bell: Are those mutually exclusive? On the Myers-Briggs personality test I either come out as as ENTJ (Extroversion, intuition, Thinking, Judging) or ENTP (Extroversion, intuition, Thinking, Perceiving), but really it's equational, we are different people based on where we are, what we're doing and who we are with. The last one being the most important. Other people effect me greatly. I think people that don't know me too well see me as a somewhat manic, gregarious, and chaotic person, which is a role I tend to play at parties, or when I teach, or perform. When I am by myself, or with a trusted friend I can be be very calm. Quiet, is another matter, when I am all alone, I am usually talking to myself, except when I am working, then I am quiet, I can go for hours without saying anything if my hands are busy with art.
Chris Uphues: What do you do when you are happy?
Jason Robert Bell:I know when I am happy, when I feel like the star of a movie in the middle of a montage. I am outside of myself, watching myself be in the moment. When I am up I am super up, the sky is the limit, I want to be around people, I want to have a big meal with my friends in a good bar and grill, for beers and cheeseburgers. I'll flirt with the waitress or some random girl, and spend too much money.
If I am alone and UP, I often have Moments of Fire where I am filled with ideas, I often have visions of projects yet to be done in these moments, or I see how to work something out on a current project. Usually these Moments, are directly connected to chance finds of thrown away items on the street.
Chris Uphues: What do you do when you are sad?
Jason Robert Bell:Usually I call you and get your voice mail, then I'll leave my apartment in Williamsburg, walk across the Bridge and keep walking all the way up to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which to me is the closest thing to a Church in my life. I will spend a few hours at the Met, throw a coin into the fountain near one of my all time favorite works, George Grey Barnard's The Struggle of the Two Natures of Man in The American Wing, It such a odd image with some nice bizarre touches that stay with you for a long time afterwords. When I in the Met, I remind myself, that great things are possible and how wonderful humanity can be.
edited by Deborah Moncrief Bell
2008, All images are the copyrights of the their creators.