New York

Leland Bell

Robert Schoelkopf Gallery

Leland Bell’s new paintings at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery continue to score more deeply the channels his expression has run in now for some years. His genres are standard ones; still life, the nude, and portraits. For Bell, these subjects represent a rough kind of organizational construct wherein he gets down to the real business at hand; the structuring of three-dimensional form in its essential aspect. Any subject will do since the appearances surrounding him are but things to be whittled down with the brush and reformed into elements manageable in the context of exclusively pictorial concerns. The exposition of informally classic structure is his obsession. These attitudes lead Bell often to do several treatments of the same subject; they are not “versions” but entirely independent undertakings. The total separateness of each such superficially related picture is clear in the three still lifes of “Skull and Plant” in the present show. Each one has a nub of complex forms centering about a still life with its bleached cranium. Toward the edges of the canvases Bell’s handling becomes broader but not looser, and may even leave untouched large areas of canvas. This is the principle of economy that both Cezanne and Giacometti exemplify in their most assured works and not that endemic fudging sketchy suggestiveness.

Bell’s paint quality in the past has sometimes had a problematic dryness that left some touches hovering just about, but not quite, settled firmly on some larger form; now he has attained to an optimum adjustment of leanness and solidity. Presumably some adjustment in the medium has allowed him to retain the clarity and lightness that a matte surface provides without the enervating lack of body that can result from very dry washes.

Five “Portraits of the Artist’s Wife” make solid hits in the difficult area of dealing with a specific figure without dawdling over the subjective allurements offered by any likeness. In each, strokes of light on facets of the volumes become integrated with the clear forms without any degeneration into mannered dabbing. These paintings are remarkable in the way they knit together difficult and potentially awkward transitions of color and form into compositions that are both cool and radiant, solid and elegant.

Several paintings with a nude plunked in an overstuffed armchair take as a theme smooth rhythmic arrangements of the forms of the body. Here Bell’s approach is the very inverse of stylization. Instead of searching for the fewest number of simple forms with which to construct the figure, he takes all the complex forms the figure provides and discovers the essence of each; it is these finds which are then classically ordered.

A group of multi-figure compositions under the title of “The Moth” seems to represent a variety of “control painting” that assists Bell in sustaining the full freshness of his other work. These strange pictures emphasize the composition in terms of area above other considerations, and the results hesitate oddly between simplified genre inventions and formal exercises carried just far enough to state problems which are to be solved in other works.

Bell’s unusual accomplishment is that he has made successful formulations of classic pictorial concerns which, with few exceptions, have flummoxed several generations of American artists. Furthermore, in the process he has not been obliged to compromise any of the contemporary relevance of his work. Stable, ordered compositions built with the forms he digs out of ordinary vision can of course have meaning only as an aim of artistic vision. The harmony and inner logic of Bell’s lucid art obviate tendentious quibbling over its validity in terms of alternate modalities.

Dennis Adrian