A conversation: David Bell and Geoff Tuck
How much of the outcome (in your ptgs) is due to the strangeness of your tracing, and how much is it due to creating a likeness? Clearly both must be present, right? In the painting of Young Chung, Jay Erker and Bettina Hubby, The People I Choose To Surround Myself With (see below), I think Jay relates to the earlier EJ Hill likeness, which was squished into your own frame, or figure.
If strange in a painting refers to a level of unreality that allows us to believe its image, is your Jay strange enough to be herself?
I remember walking around in Florence Italy when I first began making art, and s seeing a guy with no arms paint perfect portraits of people on the street with his feet, and thinking, I’m fucked. When I first began making this series I was trying to think of a way to give myself a handicap that I could put the blame on if I didn’t like the result, I didn’t want to over dramatize it by bending over and painting with a brush pointing out of my ass or anything, so I began tracing people, when they stand up they can see immediately that I’m going to have a hard time making it look flattering in anyway; it kind of starts with an apology.
Aah, an apology. Something to which I relate quite sincerely. I’m forever apologizing for my writing. We must accept that this nervous ritual serves existentially, rather than relationally. No one hears.
Social networks have allowed us to be a part of enormous communities without actually leaving the “privacy” of our homes. We are more disconnected than ever before when out interacting in analog space because these sort-of idealized digital identities are impossible to live up to in social situations; everything’s backwards, and people have become walking profiles of themselves. The art community is great, because we are a breed that constantly tests in public our consciously-constructed identities. So, in regard to “likeness,” at the least I’m trying to represent the precarious nature of contemporary lives. At first I was trying to paint only people I didn’t know well, or someone whose phone number I may have gotten at some point but would never call outside of a favor. As the series progressed, I realized that having the painting resemble the person became less important, as all of them in one way or another are trying to be a part of the same sort of community. It’s becoming more of a character study than initially I anticipated, at first I was imagining myself as an extremely invested caricature artist. Perhaps that’s still true.
Then do your “representations of the precarious nature of contemporary lives” draw from current received wisdom, i.e. public signifiers, for once-private individuals? One’s presence on the interwebz is a weird kind of permanent and instant fame, isn’t it? In the past only royalty and bishops were able to deal in signifiers. Now, we all do.
I offer you a staggeringly brave and beautiful quote from Sharon Needles: “…fame is something only other people can feel. You never feel your own fame.”1 I think she acknowledged this as a bitter realization, and one clearly learned the hard way. Off our subject, but – like your caricatures – maybe not.
Social media would have been Warhol’s utopia, right? Except the fifteen minutes of fame he suggested we would all have has been extended indefinitely. It’s a popularity contest with an equal playing field where everyone is able to perform and manipulate an identity that transcends the rules of face-to-face interaction, and the only sacrifice is lived experience. Accountability is not only ignored but nearly untraceable. I believe, if I were to play off your question, I would be attempting to combine the private individual, that being the one you meet face-to-face, with their own public signifier, that being the one they have created for themselves, be it through social media or even an individual photograph. Since the portrait is painted inside of the traced outline of the subject, it becomes an inherently distorted interpretation which I cannot be entirely accountable for, since the individual played a major role in its creation.
When we met, it was an iteration of Dave Gallery – which you described to me as “roving gallery that opportunistically focuses on audio-visual artists (due to eclectic stock of AV equipment). Our meeting took place at a show for Tiffany Smith. We spoke only briefly, then we met a few weeks later at an opening in Venice. We must have exchanged emails and web information, and I feel like I knew a bit about your work at that second meeting. I did not have the sense that you were then thinking about painting. I did have the sense that your work was/is quite engaged with your friends. Also that you approach ideas of social identity in a manner that is questioning, self-deprecating.
Your social scene, or a social scene is very much your subject matter on these new paintings. It goes beyond portraits of your friends to some broader, deeper exploration of social relations. Some of the paintings remind me of the film you showed in the Lighthouse show, Δ3, in which your friends and your past were subject of the work, but not object. They were present only by suggestion. In the paintings, people are represented, but any social connection is in the eye of the viewer.
Sure, I think…all people exist in and out of thousands of relationships, the ones that I find interesting to explore are, for example: the other best friend of your closest friend who clearly doesn’t like you, but you both have to entertain each other for the sake of the mutual friendship, or a past friendship that will never die even though clearly you have nothing in common, most likely because one or the others façade from high school wore off a long time ago. I think that the more personal and honest one gets with the work, the more it actually opens up to an audience. The bachelor party video in the Lighthouse show, I’m sure there was some objectification going on, I always assume that if I make myself look worse off then everyone else, people can understand there may something else going on, and we can even possibly (dare I say it) learn something?. I have definitely ruined relationships with some of the work I have made, but then again I fixed one by doing a performance with my ex, who’s role was to destroy any sort of good reputation I had with every person I knew. Sometimes you have to take risks, and sometimes people get hurt. I don’t try to make things offensive, but sometimes improvisation leads to mis-steps. I find it’s usually worth it. I don’t think art should be so removed from life where you’re afraid to fail publicly. Knowingly play it safe and you will just end up being mediocre. I guess I’m a little bit of a purist and want to be entertained.
Which brings us nicely back to Florence, and to a naturalistic style of portraiture that was often then presented in stylized, simple backgrounds, three-dimensional figures in flattened space. Frieze-like, these 13th and 14th century artists, by using similar framing devices, drew connections among people and gods, while also suggesting social/worldly stories of the characters the artists rendered. Say hello to demos in Olympus, and to Warhol, and to Facebook.
A Wrecking Ball, Tiffany Smith, and David Bell will participate in curator Molly Shea’s Dutch Door project Countdown Performance Series beginning on October 28 at Raid Projects.
Artist Vanessa Conte has curated an exhibition which includes the work of David Bell, as well as other artists from the US and from Germany. Sexy Boyfriend will open on Saturday, November 17, 7 to 10:00 pm at 742 North Broadway, 90012 (2nd Floor), in Chinatown. Stay tuned for more information.