MBELLART Weekly. Every Wednesday on Yareah Magazine an Interview with American Artist Michael Bell. Today: New York
Michael Bell is a renowned American artist, most famous for his narrative thematic series paintings that usually focus on a tragic event to understand causes and consequences. Bell also has an infamous portrait painting clientele, which includes the late reputed New York Mob Boss John Gotti, and numerous actors who play gangsters in the movies.
Bell spent a lot of his formative years in and around New York City, developing his painting career. It was during this time period when Bell began exploring life’s very personal and psychological issues visually through his paintings.
Michael. No doubt, you are a true New Yorker and New York has been the center of the art world during the last fifty years, without competition. However, other cities seem to be taking positions now: Basel, Dubai, Sydney and above all, Hong Kong. What do you think about this new competition? Can this be good for New York or the beginning of the end?
Well, as a painter – and I mean for people who still really love “compelling paintings” and American painters – it is becoming harder to find in New York these days. Yes, you can fortunately still catch an Eric Fischl show at Mary Boone, for instance, but the rising dominance of the Chinese artists and a resurgence of art in other cities has definitely thrown New York a curveball. I think competition is healthy, and it ultimately will help the New York art scene to reinvent itself and re-emerge. That’s the thing about New York and New Yorkers, they always find a way to stay strong.
Right now, there’s a lot of art that makes me wonder how it got on the wall in the first place. There’s been a lot more exhibitions marrying technology and art, video and installation art to compete with the ADD gallerists’ attention span, and with artists like Ai Weiwei making so many headlines – more political art is also resurfacing.
Your paintings are full of topics and characters from New York. However, they are violent: murders, mafia, difficult childhoods… Doesn’t New York inspire peace or positive emotions? Why do you perceive your city like this?
It’s not “the City” I necessarily perceive as violent or murderous, but the people I’ve come to know and the stories surrounding my life and the people in it that are. New York is by far THE MOST inspiring place I’ve ever lived. It does inspire peace and positive emotions for me and it’s truly where stars are born. Like the late Frank Sinatra said, “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” There’s nothing like breathing in the sights, smells and sounds of New York City.
But, my themes arise from a very specific slice of New York that I came to know too well living there. As an artist, I’ve found that I only draw inspiration from what I really know on a deep, personal level – what’s struck a chord with me – if that makes sense. In the beginning I’d free associate in my work, painting fictional characters based on one’s I’d seen or heard stories about growing up. As time went on, that wasn’t enough for me, and like a method actor I felt I needed to “live it out”…whatever it was I was working on, and I’d immerse myself into the scenes on the canvas in such a way that in the end, the paintings would feel authentic to me. Coming from a place I, alone, could call my own.
Only a name (well, maybe two). In your point of view, who are the most influential artists from New York?
Eric Fischl. No need to give two. Just Eric. He’s served as both inspiration and mentor to me long before I first had the pleasure of meeting him in person and spending time with him, as I collaborated with him to create inspiring lessons for his America: Now and Here movement back in 2012. Nora Sturges, whom I studied painting under while working on my Graduate coursework at Towson University first introduced me to his Eric Fischl’s work back in 2003. I was immediately drawn to his realistic style of painting reminiscent of Degas, Manet and Hopper even, but I was also particularly drawn to the psychological narratives in his work that surrounded some sort of childhood trauma. I eventually wrote about Fischl’s glassine paintings in a Master’s Thesis I published years ago on “Visual Journaling,” which to me, represented an alternative large-scale means of drawing out ideas that could be pinned up, overlapped, and re-arranged to determine a final composition for a future painting – or stand alone as a final product. These glassine works seemed to be a natural transition from the processes Da Vinci incorporated as daily practice in his sketchbooks to Edvard Munch’s visual journals and printmaking that explored life, love and pain and also led to future, grand scale paintings. And like Munch, Fischl also says what there is to say when words often fail to accurately describe a certain moment just before, or just after something has happened. I love the way he leaves room for the audience to participate in a works’ reenactment and fill in the blanks based on their own personal experiences. I do this with my narrative paintings as well, only I explore a different genre, one I personally relate to, which just happens to be gangsters and the lives of the people surrounding the destruction they often leave in their path. The thoughtfulness and investigative processes that goes into each of Eric’s works, along with having lived out similar childhood traumas was familiar territory to me, which is probably why I was first drawn to Eric’s work. Like attracts like. There’s an old saying, “never meet your heroes because they will never live up to your expectations.” Well, with Eric, he turned out ten times cooler than I ever imagined he’d be.
EARLY GLASSINE WORKS: