Deborah Bell’s exhibition Flux is about movement and metamorphosis, fusion and the forging of spiritual transformation through her life experiences, and the close observation and study of civilizations and objects from the past.
Deborah Bell’s exhibition Flux is about movement and metamorphosis, fusion and the forging of spiritual transformation through her life experiences, and the close observation and study of civilizations and objects from the past. Often quoted in relation to her work, Bell remains true to Weimar artist Max Beckmann’s dictum: “If you wish to get hold of the invisible you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible.” Working in this manner since the 1990s, Bell has forged a deeper understanding of and longing for ancient cultures, such as those of Africa, Babylonia, China and Egypt. Research drawings made in museums enable her to bring the past into the present.Titles, words and references evoke alchemic processes, muses, gods, spirits and myths. We encounter Archaeus, Albedo, Daemon and Chimera. Bell is the alchemist who transmutes ancient cultures into contemporary practice, myths into visible images, visual history into new archetypes; she does this in the crucible of her own creativity and spirituality. No wonder that gold is ubiquitous in her mixed media works and that glimmering highlights articulate the dark patina of her sculptures in bronze.Animals – mythological and real – abound and enable Bell to seamlessly fuse or confound nature and culture. The mixed media work Forge has all the dynamism of a Minoan mural painting, yet a static sculptural figure sits astride the leaping bull. Equestrian figures are alive, yet not quite flesh and blood. Chimera I is floating and weightless; the fabulous female monster has grown wings to complete her transfiguration.Bell’s mastery of drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture is impressive, with marvellously rich and dense surfaces in the mixed media works, while the drypoint etchings are often sparse and linear. The sculpture ranges from African-inspired ceremonial staffs to small figures riding horses or lions, from the intimacy of the couple joined in Conjunction to the monumental Empress Dominion who commands surrounding space and is exquisitely balanced on her decorative wheel.Bell’s delving into – or unearthing of – the past does not find favour everywhere and is regarded by some as shallow copyism or syncretism. This may at least partially explain her absence from the book 10 Years 100 Artists (2004); but her eponymous Taxi Art Book, published by David Krut in 2004, is sold out. The overwhelming audience response to her recent Cape Town exhibition, with its display of technical virtuosity, further served to confirm her place as a foremost South African artist.What a pity though that there was no catalogue. The Goodman Gallery has shown its mettle in the Cape but it needs to underpin exhibitions with regular publications – like Michael Stevenson and SMAC Gallery – in order to meaningfully contribute to South African art and art history.