El Greco. Interview with artist Michael Bell

El Greco. Interview with artist Michael Bell

El Greco. Interview with Michael Bell by Isabel del Rio. Every Wednesday, Michael Bell at his section MBELLART on Yareah magazine.

I.R.- Hi Michael, how is life? As you know, this year is the centenary of El Greco (1541 – 7 April 1614), one of my favorite artists and a master of the late Renaissance (Mannerism). What do you think of his peculiar artwork?

M.B.- I love the narrative, figurative qualities embedded into El Greco’s works. They are works rooted in telling stories and his peculiar vantage points and perspectives make the works even more intriguing to me personally. I also appreciate an artist who weaves stories within other stories. In this case, it’s Christ kneeling toward center as an angel appears to him with a cup. We’re of the point of view we could be another angel bearing witness, perhaps. I also enjoy the montage of what’s happening literally behind Christ’s back as Judas approaches with soldiers (bottom right) while at left are his sleeping apostles. This painting is filled with stories. I also enjoy his “View of Toledo”, which is right up there with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in its fame and notoriety. What I love about it is, again, the unique perspective. As if we were in the sky. I wonder if it’s this painting that influenced some of Wayne Theibaud’s landscapes. Painted in a Mannerist (or Baroque) style, the work also takes liberties with the actual layout of Toledo (some buildings are depicted in different positions than their actual location).

The Agony in the Garden by El Greco (Domenikos Theotocopoulos) (1541 – 1614) Oil on canvas, c.1595 46″ w x 41″ h

The Agony in the Garden by El Greco (Domenikos Theotocopoulos) (1541 – 1614) Oil on canvas, c.1595 46″ w x 41″ h

El Greco, “View of Toledo” 1596 - 1600

El Greco, “View of Toledo” 1596 – 1600

M.B.- Here are two paintings montages of mine, one is an work which makes a statement about the pursuit of the American dream and what that looks like to the public witnessing the rise and fall of the likes of John Gotti, circa 2002, painted as an homage to him shortly after his death.

Michael Bell, “John Gotti, America”, Acrylics/Canvas 36” X 48” 2002

Michael Bell, “John Gotti, America”, Acrylics/Canvas 36” X 48” 2002

M.B.- The more recent work below is another narrative portrait of Gotti’s son, John Gotti, Jr. as he emerges victorious, about to burst through crime scene tape with the symbolic words “Do Not Cross” on the yellow tape, above flags waving below them spelling out the words “welcome home” after beating his 4th and final trial. ToniMarie Ricci sits testifying on his behalf at this trial at top. The 12 juror seats are at left as barbed wire cuts through the scene. The busts of famous native Americans bottom left represent his plight.

Michael Bell, “Scars, Scene 5”, 14” X 20” oils on paper, 2013

Michael Bell, “Scars, Scene 5”, 14” X 20” oils on paper, 2013

I.R.- Once, El Greco said: “I was created by the all-powerful God to fill the universe with my masterpieces.” Have you ever felt that way?

M.B.- I once had a mentor that said to me “We [artists] are the closest things to Gods, because we have the uncanny ability to create something from nothing.” I thought it was a pretty bold thing to say — arrogant even. But was he wrong? He certainly raises a good point if you can get past the narcissism. I do feel I was put on earth for specific reasons. I believe everybody is. And since I’ve been exhibiting my work since the age of 5, it’s definitely what I was born to do.

Michael Bell, circa 1977

Michael Bell, circa 1977

M.B.- I believe my work has its place in history, and I also believe I’ve contributed greatly to the “conversations” the masters have been having with their work over time and that I deserve a seat at that table. We’ll just have to see what happens. The reason I feel that way is because I have something to say, and I have a unique way of saying it (artistically, through my paintings and visual journals) in a way that that nobody else can, but me. I can also show hidden truths about a world most people only catch glimpses of from the outside looking in, not from the inside looking out.

I.R.- And what do you think of his opinion about color? I know color is one of your strengths: “It is only after years of struggle and deprivation that the young artist should touch color – and then only in the company of his betters.”

M.B.- I think it’s important for an artist to develop a personal palette. You once said you were “fascinated with my acid-like colors, a different palette where white and personal grays are the kings.” I think it’s important to develop your own palette. As a teaching method, I also believe color is something that should be explored only after first becoming really strong in black and white, at least to some level of control. I push student artists who study with me to first work in black and white as graphite drawings, then graduate to charcoal drawings with a full range of value, then to larger-than-life sized charcoal drawings on toned butcher paper, then on black paper with white conte, gradually moving toward three tone paintings in acrylic, to full gradient paintings in acrylic and in watercolor washes until they’re prepared to learn the renaissance style of underpainting in grisaille or verdaccio. This requires the first layer to be a detailed charcoal drawing. My theory here, when using this method is that “behind every powerful painting is a really strong drawing.” From there, I seal the drawing into the canvas with a thin wash of oils in black and white (Using Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna and Titanium White for grisaille; or Chromium Oxide Green, Lamp Black and Zinc White for verdaccio. Once dry, I glaze-in color using Alizarin Crimson, Pthalo Blue, Yellow Hansa Light. From there, I incorporate a full range of rich cadmium colors, and all colors I feel I need to across the spectrum to achieve the realism I’m after. For me, this method of working is the best way to introduce artists to oils in a gradual way that makes them better at drawing and painting all at once.

Michael Bell, “Shoot the Clown, Burst the Red Balloon”, 48” X 96” oils on canvas, 2012

Michael Bell, “Shoot the Clown, Burst the Red Balloon”, 48” X 96” oils on canvas, 2012

I.R.- Nice week, Michael.

Enjoy this marvelous spring.

M.B.- Have a beautiful week Isabel. It’s ArtQuest time this Thursday, 7pm for the annual student art exhibition I’m sponsoring, so I’m gearing up! Happy spring!


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is renowned American painter and muralist, famous for his larger-than-life sized narrative series paintings and for his infamous portrait clientele, which includes the late Mob Boss John Gotti, best friend Dominic Capone III (Al Capone’s great nephew) and numerous actors from The Sopranos, Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale and more. Yes, his works are the mirror of a tragic world, but they deepen our human psychology with strong brush strokes and vivid colors, from personal memories and silent echoes, with courage and creativity. Bell was naturally gifted in art and won 1st Place in his first juried art exhibition at age 5. As an emerging artist he spent a lot of his time in and around New York City, studying art with his maternal grandmother, Violet Vallery, a self-taught artist from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Then, after the still-born death of his sister Amanda and the sudden passing of his Grandfather, a former professional boxer, Bell began to explore life's personal and psychological issues through his paintings. In addition, Bell has written his first screenplay based on the real-life events surrounding his famous "TICKET TO RIDE™" painting series and has won three national awards in 2013. Bell exhibits his large, narrative series paintings in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

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