Stanley Bell has put his signature abstract visual style on wood and metal, on found objects, skateboard decks, and even in a mural covering the walls of the Aspen Daily News production room.
Now, for the first time, he’s painting on canvas.
His forays into canvas are the centerpiece of the Carbondale artist’s new show, opening Friday at the Gonzo Museum.
The kinetic new work — totaling 75 pieces, including six large canvases — is distinctly Stanley Bell. The 35-year-old has refined his voice and aesthetic over eight years of painting in the valley, making it so that when you see a Bell, you immediately know it’s a Bell. He’s internalized the feral spirit and aesthetic of street graffiti and recast it into fine art.
The new pieces are filled with bulbous forms and shapes — reminiscent of smoke, clouds, air bubbles in water, or empty comic book speech balloons — wrought in a bright palate and energetic style that’s vaguely reminiscent of spray paint tags.
“I want to build my own language and I want people to look at these and know that they’re mine,” Bell said as he finished hanging his show in the downtown Aspen gallery. “It’s something I’ve worked hard at. And I feel like I’m there.”
The Pumas on his feet, slightly faded, are a bold green that would look at home in his paintings. The inner temples of his black rim Ray Bans are a hazmat suit yellow, similar to the intense cast that peppers much of the new work, like in the glowing background of “The Microscopic Dilemma.”
Bell calls the bubble forms in these paintings “organelles,” like the sub-cellular structures you might see under a microscope in high school biology class. In pieces like “The Forming Pattern,” the centerpiece of the Gonzo show, these shapes collide in a Guernica-like jumble. In many of the new pieces, there are fragmented and detailed touches among the cluster, along with paint drips and splatters and thick-layered brush strokes. In a few, the canvases are decidedly less busy than Bell’s past work.
He says the concept in the six new large canvases is that, from one to another, you are zooming in on the cluster of organelles, eventually arriving at a close-up of a piece of one organelle from the larger landscape. That’s a new scale for Bell, whose best-known work has been in heavily detailed and chaotic compositions.
When he paints, Bell works on the fly — without sketches, but with a concept in his head of what he wants to do with a canvas.
“I’ll be listening to music and I’ll just start creating forms and they just come together on their own,” he explains. “I know my palate. I’m very familiar with what I’m working with. It’s just now naturally how I work.”
In the days before Friday’s opening, the Gonzo Museum was abuzz. Hammers banged nails into the gallery walls to hang the last of the work, Warren Zevon played on a beaten antique silver boom box, and Flash — Bell’s terrier mix dog — scampered around him as he surveyed his new work.
Gonzo Museum founder D.J. Watkins beamed as he looked over the Bell-covered walls of his gallery.
“Stanley is my favorite young artist in the valley,” says Watkins, “so this is the crescendo of our programming, as far as the local scene.”
The Gonzo has hung a series of shows since the summer, showcasing emerging artists and locals’ work.
Watkins signed Bell up for the show in July, paying him modest monthly installments that enableded him to work on paintings for the show full-time over the last four months. The contract — written on a napkin, photographed and shown to this writer through the spider-cracked face of Watkins’ smart phone — extended for Bell a run of full-time art-making that he’s been on since March of last year.
Bell had previously worked in graphic design and advertising while painting on the side — skills he can easily fall back on if he needs to make ends meet. But, for now, he wants to stay focused on the art and, hopefully, sell enough to keep painting and be self-sufficient.
“It’s hard to do this full-time,” he says. “I’m struggling my ass off. But it’s worth it. I’d rather eat Ramen, but wake up and say, ‘I’m going to go make art all day.’”
His devotion to the craft is paying off, it seems. Along with the opening at the Gonzo this week, Bell was recently signed by a major Dallas gallery that has begun showing his work.
“There’s momentum now,” he says. “That’s giving me a boost to keep exploring.”
His growing profile as an artist — and his outsized talent — make one wonder how long it will be before he outgrows the valley and moves to an art world epicenter like New York or Los Angeles. He gets asked that question a lot, Bell says, but he doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.
“I can always show in galleries there,” he says. “But I want to make it work living here. I enjoy the peace and the quiet out here.”
Along with the six large canvases, he’s made 69 smaller pieces on wood, each showing a single organelle.
“The smaller ones are like pieces of the bigger ones,” he says.
Among his next projects, he says, will be making three-dimensional sculptures of the organelles. Returning to sculpture would bring Bell full-circle. While he’s likely the most recognizable and collected locally based painter, Bell actually came to the valley because of sculpture. He moved here, from his hometown Dallas, in 2004 to work as an assistant to sculptor James Surls.
Bell eventually became a member of Studio for Arts and Works (SAW), the Carbondale collaborative studio space that closed earlier this year, and worked out of a studio there for four years. The dialogue between artists there was key to his progression, he says.
“There’s a whole group of artists here and we’ve all kind of come up together,” he says. “We were having a lot of collaborative shows together — feeding and working off of each other.”
This summer he took a studio critique class at Anderson Ranch with the New York-based painter Gary Simmons, who helped him develop the concept for the new work.
“He really opened up a lot of ideas and things to explore,” Bell says.
While the new work still has an urban feel to it, it doesn’t take on cityscapes as directly as his earliest stuff did. The large new canvases, he explains, are instead about people — aiming to capture them in a non-literal way.
“They’ve always been about people,” Bell says. “But instead of putting people in them, I’m looking at people’s energy. There’s still people in them, but what I’m imagining is their energy or the aura around them. I didn’t want to be so literal. I was working with a concept where, if I’m walking down the street and I see a group of people, trying to imagine what the energy looks like around them.”
blackfriday: New Paintings by Stanley Bell
Friday Nov. 23, 2012
6:00 -10:00 p.m.
521 E. Hyman Ave