Deborah Bell – an appreciation
Deborah Bell’s work is very still.
She eschews needless gesture or posture. Her work, particularly her sculpture, grows outward by addition from a strong, almost resilient, anchored, spine.
Deborah’s work ‘stands for something’ in the way that a drawing on an ancient Greek urn stands for something. Or, the way the Venus of Willendorf must have stood for something. She has always drawn from the well of deep mythological history and she’s frequently mined the caves of ‘primitivism’. Mythological time and mythological thought function as her creative placenta – so to speak. This is where she gets her juice!
But, all good work must stand for something. Most often we will think of this ‘standing for something’ as what the work is about or what it might be said to ‘mean’. Let’s reflect on this a little.
I’ve never been convinced by the post- modern conceit announcing the death of the author. On the contrary, access to the author – his or her ways of thinking and feeling – are at the very core of my pleasures. The best of the things we make reveal the life of the maker. By the word life here I mean to suggest a great deal more than autobiography, or diary, or chronicle, or even my own penchant for romantic confession. I mean rather to suggest a point of view – what some might call a philosophical position – though the word ‘philosophical’ implies something far too wordy and argued.
By and large we experience art, especially visual art, through its appearances. The common saw that ‘we should not judge by appearances’ falls completely, emphatically, into absurdity when we face a painting, or a sculpture, or a photograph. Appearance is the medium. But, and here please forgive the gymnastics, what is it that appears through the appearance? What is it that we see, what is it that we ‘get’, when the appearances have filtered through us, when the ‘sum of the appearances’ have gelled into an experience? I want to contend that what we ‘get’ is a glimpse of a life distilled. We get a glimpse of a distinct and, most often, hard-won point of view – a point of view free of distraction and deflection and usually the product of rigorous commitment and self-examination. Work concentrated. This is what Deborah might call her ‘focus’.
I raise this rather knotty stuff for two reasons. Firstly, because all good work, it seems to me, is ultimately driven by a great question, what some might call a non-trivial question: ‘Where am I in the world and what is it like to be here?’ (Think of Cezanne, of Rothko, of Twombly.) And secondly, and probably more to the point, because the focus of Deborah’s work has become more evidently focused on this sense of focus – to be a still point in a turning world, to gather in, and in equal measure to again radiate outwards, a sense of power. A power, which it seems to me, is made manifest through an exact crafting of stillness.
The urban sociologist Richard Sennet, early in his book The Conscience of the Eye, notes that the ancient Greek could use his or her eyes to see the complexities of life in the ancient Greek city. He is referring to public sculpture, sculpture standing for qualities like ‘remorse’ or perhaps ‘tragedy’ or perhaps a goddess like Athena, whose attributes could be said to be available for some sort of communion through the contemplation of her stone effigy. The ancient Greeks could, he suggests, use their eyes in the city to think about political, religious and erotic experiences. It would be difficult to know, he says, where in particular to go in modern London to experience ‘remorse’ in this way.
Picture with me for a moment this little fancy: It’s been a long and tiresome day. A deal falls through, the dog gets sick, the latest electricity bill runs into multiples of thousands of rands. Someone’s hacked your email and is sending, in your name, humiliating junk around the world. And, the traffic … oh well. You get home. Loosen the belts and buttons, pour a drink and slump. But there’s a presence in the room, maybe a small etching, a painting, or, if you’re among the rare and privileged, a tall bronze figure. This presence, silently and almost with stealth, engages your attention. Maybe you haven’t gone home. Maybe you’re in an art galley. Either way you’ve brought the hubbub and agitation of the world into the room and now stillness gets your attention – a very particular Deborah Bell kind of stillness.
What occurs in the presence of this stillness must always be open to revisiting and to review. But it is also open to suggestion.
Her embrace of history is evidence of more than a romance of antiquity and I am reminded of a line from George Seferis’ Mythological Story, ‘… that the ancient drama might begin again.’
Deborah is drawn to a particular kind of metaphysical otherness – a sense that beyond this world, perhaps, there is another world or even other worlds. I suspect that she would hold that consciousness is the enduring energy which travels across or transcends the boundaries of the mundane. That this consciousness can, with drilled intention, tunnel through to new levels of awareness. She is attached to ritual and its images – ritual as a point of departure: a way to get somewhere else.
Her images are personifications – a dramatis personae involved in the drama of crossing-over; transcendence – as in consciousness magnified; or, as in transport – ‘I am transported by the beauty of …,’ as in ecstasy or enlightenment. To be seriously ‘moved’. Hence boats and horses.
The large woman with a bow and her dogs will invite thoughts of Diana or Artemis. Perhaps these will lead somewhere for you but not if they take you to thoughts of feminine militarism. Her bow is unstrung: her arm is the arrow. This is not a huntress with prey or foe in mind. She appears, to me at least, to be unruffled by an urge to chase. She is poised on the edge of time – a void possibly. No need for mere victory.
This is a woman’s form in two senses: in that it is made by a woman and made of a woman. This is a risky thought, but I have a sense that as an image of the feminine she is so much more engaging than anything I’ve seen a man make – at least quite distinct from forms of the feminine that I’ve seen men make. This is tangible to me but tough to explain. I suspect that it may have to do with her air of mental aloofness – here’s that notion of consciousness again.
I’m also reminded, on quite another tack, of William Blake’s, ‘Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrow of desire …’ and, ‘And did these feet in ancient times walk upon …’
Towards the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus discourse on weighty matters, like aesthetics, tragedy, pity and terror. In defining the latter he twice uses the phrase ‘… whatsoever is grave and constant ...’
In a 1958 address Mark Rothko, both with tongue in cheek and in ‘deadly’ earnest, offered a formula, ‘a recipe’, for making a work of art. His first point was that ‘There must be a clear preoccupation with death – intimations of mortality …’
I want to suggest that Deborah’s work is riddled with these intimations of mortality and I think too, that the phrase ‘… whatsoever is grave and constant ...’ just about hits the mark.