Judith Ann Moriarty

Five Questions for Fred Bell

By - Feb 18th, 2010 02:37 pm
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Self-portrait of the artist, screaming. Fred Bell, Oil on canvas, date unknown.

Fred Bell has his own wall at Portrait Society Gallery (PSG) on floor five of the Marshall Building. It’s a coup of sorts, as he’s only one of two artists exhibiting there who have a wall to themselves. His kingdom is in the hallway linking the three PSG spaces. The other artist, the late Rudy Rotter, a Manitowoc dentist, has a room almost to himself, but that’s another story.

Bell is a “painter’s painter,” which is a tired old phrase meaning he’s a lover of paint in all its manifestations. Yet, at his wildest, his delectable strokes resemble those of Vincent Van Gogh during his days and nights of madness. In particular, Bell’s self-portraits (modestly sized oils) capture the moods of the man who ended up hacking off an ear. As you read Bell’s series from left to right, the nuttiness grows ever nuttier.

(From March 19 to May 16 is Big Star at PSG with linocuts of famous artists in Gallery A by Carri Skoczek and oil paintings of famous American writers by Fred Bell in Gallery B.)

1. To date, I’ve seen your painterly studies of doorknobs, chairs, houses, rocks and, well, quite an assortment of “things.” And lots of red dots indicating they’re selling. But face it, they’re relatively inexpensive. I mean what’s not to like about doorknobs, chairs, houses, rocks and an assortment of “things” lusciously conceived, each stroke of the brush masterful and thoughtful. Good enough to eat. You pack a lot of meat onto the bone.

I wanted to paint things that were not the ordinary still-life objects. I was looking for a new direction, so for me, it is more about the development of the painting than the subject matter. Painting the same object forces creativity, but I don’t want to paint the same object over and over. For me, the series becomes more about the application of paint and pushing the image into abstraction.

2. I went to your website and noticed you have been working on a series of fluffy little chicks, the images of which are very like images on sweet Easter cards, perhaps the Hallmark cards of my youth. Why chicks? Perhaps a little silly?

That’s easy. I have a patron who buys the chick paintings from me. I’m lucky that way. The closest I’ve been to chickens is an unfortunate period of a month when I worked at a Colonel Sanders in Florida …. long ago. The chicken paintings lend themselves to a loose buttery application, and actually, that is more of what I am involved with in my series for Portrait Society, too. Though you won’t find the chicks at PSG.

3. Before doorknobs and rocks and things, what were you painting?

Wauwatosa landscapes, mostly from imagination. I moved from NYC to Milwaukee and was struck by the great architecture of my hometown. After 15 years in New York, I was so glad to be home. It started to come out in my work, and so I went with it. The homes are cozy and, well, homey.

Bell's "Big Tree"

Bell’s “Big Tree”

4. You say the series direction is recent. How did you end up with a wall of your own at Portrait Society Gallery?

Debra Brehmer saw my work at my Blogspot site and also on Facebook. Initially, I was doing little paintings of chairs and the houses, but gradually I began to think about my work in a conceptual way. Now, I do nine paintings about one subject. My wall regularly changes, and each series of nine are hung in the order that I do them, so they “read” like a sentence or story about the development of painting. I haven’t checked lately to see about sales, but at last count it was 36. It’s been great!

5. In this economy, any art that sells is a plus. Amy O’Neill recently had a large PSG wall filled with coy little paintings of chickens, but not at all in your style. Being from Iowa, I sometimes depict chickens in my paintings, but mine are headless with bloody stumps where once noble heads with beady eyes and sharp beaks were. The point being that I remember the Sunday slaughters in rural Iowa. There doesn’t seem to be any message in your work. In a world of corporate farms where chickens are crammed into cages, don’t you want to join the art activists like Sue Coe who use art to make a statement?

I was angry and depressed in New York City. Nothing felt right, so when I came home I focused on the positive. It is healthy for me, and I don’t like to complain. I leave that to others. I’m 61 now and mostly just want to be able to pay the rent. But I always look at the work of others. It’s very helpful.

Categories: 5Q, Art

0 thoughts on “5Q: Five Questions for Fred Bell”

  1. Anonymous says:

    There are lots of things I miss about New York and the orgiastic art scene is certainly one of them. But Milwaukee offers a plentiful buffet of terrific art that more than satisfies my appetite. In addition to the high profile MAM, whose permanent collection is well worth returning to time and time again whatever is on exhibit in the Quadracci wing, Marquette’s Haggerty and galleries like Deb Brehmer’s, Cissie Peltz’s and David Barnett’s are gifts that keep on giving. Well done, Milwaukee!!!

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