Artists have a way of looking at society from the outside and a way of revealing truths about our time and culture through their works. Sometimes such revelation proves welcome, forbidden, perceptive, or shocking. In any case, it forces us to come to terms with our view of the world and even with ourselves.
Local artist, John Bell, represents this quintessential social commentator, looking from the outside and exposing our preconceived notions. His contribution to the current exhibition at the BYU Museum of Art, “We Could Be Heroes,” demonstrates such commentary. Since the exhibition deals with heroes and villains, it seems important to understand the artist’s view of our cultural fascination.
Bell responds that, “The notion of a hero or a villain (monsters) is at the very core of culture; it is in the DNA of our story telling, myths, and religions. These iconic archetypal figures are how we identify who we are and what we stand for. The hero’s journey has been told for centuries throughout countless cultures. Christ, Buddha, Batman, Superman, Luke Skywalker, sports figures, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Bob Dylan…. Fictional or real, the list is endless, and as you know, there are no heroes without a nemesis. Each generation puts new faces on them to pass on their traditions and beliefs.”
The work Bell debuted idolizes Bob Dylan, who he considers to be an American hero. Why was a musician, a fellow artist, regarded as a hero as opposed to a military or political figure? “Idolize may be a bit over reaching. I am a fan of his music and an admirer his artistic genius and integrity. I chose a musician or artist because I relate to what he does more so than any military or political figure. Unlike politicians, he doesn’t pander to an audience or follow a strict regimen like someone in the military. He is an enigma, not only in the way he has represented both sides of the coin, hero and monster, but because he’s done this again and again, persona after persona for decades. Fifty years on and people are still debating over it. He has generated as much discourse as anyone in the history of pop culture. The two mentioned, politicians and military figures, both have some examples of individuals that can be seen as both hero and monster, but they tend to be different people for each generation. What drew me to Dylan is that he’s just one person who’s been viewed as both hero and monster over and over, continually reinventing himself and engaging generation after generation. His evolving legacy struck me as the perfect answer to the question that Jeff (Lambson), curator of the exhibition, posed with the theme of this show. Below is the artist statement for the Dylan piece, in the museums’ infinity goes up on trial. This was written before I started the painting. It was used as a guide of sorts to create the work. It speaks directly to why I choose Dylan as the subject for the show.”
I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.
“[Dylan] went on to define or defy those boundaries for the next five decades, never in the manner expected of him. While many claimed that ‘responsibility’ was to a generation, a movement or something perceivably for the greater good, Dylan felt that ‘responsibility’ was better served in more artistic terms, through freedom of individual expression, from persona to persona, decade after decade. With endless personal projections and expectations pushed upon him, Bob Dylan has embodied both sides of the coin, hero and monster. He has generated as much discourse as anyone in the history of pop culture. Fifty years in, and the debate still rages on in books, magazines, movies, blogs, and conversations. Voice of a generation, traitor, folk hero, Judas, the greatest song writer in music history to he can’t even sing. From counter culture icon to being awarded the presidential medal of freedom and everything in-between. Even more fascinating than the five-decade-long pop culture dichotomy is the fact that Dylan himself is the only one not interested in the debate. Before anyone can come close to understanding the enigma that he is, he has long since moved on, or as he put it best in his own words, ‘I’m not there.’ Some artist’s work speaks for itself. Some artist’s work speaks for generations. For this artist, Bob Dylan is an American hero.”
John Bell, December 3, 2012
Yet, how does art represent heroism in Bell’s view? “In general I don’t associate art with heroism, and I don’t say that as a criticism. Many artists share similar traits associated with heroism– boldness, daring, audacity, fearlessness, backbone, spirit, etc…. But I wouldn’t call most heroic. I view a lot of what I do as satirical cultural criticism, which is an important part of public discourse, but hardly heroic. Heroism as it relates to the art world isn’t something, I think, that most artists set out to accomplish. It is usually circumstantial. Like Ai Weiwei and his open criticism of the Chinese governments stance on democracy and human rights. His fame gave him the opportunity to speak out and be heard on a global scale. He made that choice, aware of the inherent dangers (that did play out), which can be viewed as heroic. But I would say that’s the exception, not the rule.”
Bell debuted his work at the opening night of the exhibition. How did the opening differ in the setting of a university museum than in a gallery or other public venue? “It felt elevated and validating. The biggest difference was having a great curator like Jeff (Lambson) and being invited to take part in an interesting dialogue that wasn’t of my own making. To be brought into the mix and accepted as an equal with some great artists from around the world was a very satisfying accomplishment. The night of the exhibition was like a gallery show in that you have hundreds of fragmented conversations with people you’d love to be able to talk to more but you can’t because you’re trying to connect with so many. Then in the morning, it feels like it didn’t really happen at all. Then you start wondering about new work, and it starts all over again.”
After such a successful debut, what other projects do we have to look forward to from Bell? “I have a solo show at BYU Museum of Art opening September. 6th. It focuses on my more minimal architectural work (2005 to 2008). Plus, there will be a dozen very large sculptures surrounding the building that I will be creating this spring and summer. I have three other projects/shows that I’ve been invited to do which are all in the planning and negotiating stage, so I don’t want to say what they are yet…. Guess I’m a bit superstitious that way. It will be a busy year, if anyone would like to stay in touch about upcoming shows they can sign up on a mailing list at artistjohnbell.com and receive invites to shows, news, etc….”
In among all these projects, it seems important to understand what the artist ultimately wants to accomplish through art. ” I just want to make great art that connects with people and that, hopefully, pushes the dialogue of contemporary art forward.”