Finding yourself among the gods of Deborah Bell’s subconscious, in her latest exhibition which experientially reads more like the inner space of an ancient, or even futuristic sanctum, one may be easily tempted to engage with her latest work on a purely phenomenological level. This may very well be the intention of the artist, as her catalogue of the works and various interviews that followed place emphasis on the spiritual journey of the artist: she describes her work as transcendental, as products of a summoning. Undeniably, upon entering the installation, “Return of the Gods: the Ancient Ones” on the upper floor of the Everard Read gallery in Cape Town, you may feel as though you have accidentally ascended the stairway to Elysium. Five larger-than-life bronze figures stand summoned in the shadowy space: shamans, tall and heavily robed with small figures rising from their heads into the lights that illuminate them. Each carries an individual beauty, male or female: their features offer a transcultural aesthetic, combined with the sort of ideal perfection you may imagine inherent to the countenance of gods. In a deceptively small space, you experience the grandeur of Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta Bingmayong (Bell’s guardians, though fewer, mirror in their oriental airs a similar imperious stature), as well as the sublimity of the columnar cathedral sculptures of the Notre Dame de Chartres. They are the atlantids and caryatids that carry the cosmos. It is once you start to move about them, that you are truly drawn into their magic. Each has been given a ‘voice’, composed by Philip Miller, which activates in your presence—a violin, a Xhosa chant, a shofar. Together, they create a spirited vibration, a euphonious harmony that resounds among them and the mortals at their feet.
But, even in the presence of such sensory ‘magic’, you cannot deny the role of the skilful and practiced hand of the artist as self-summoned sorceress. Nor is the wisdom of three decades in the art world to be taken lightly. While Bell alludes to the ‘collective memory’, her powerful technique as well as profound philosophies no doubt sprout forth from a wellspring of a ‘collected memory’ accumulated throughout her years as artist. It is her persistent striving for excellence, her mastery of various mediums and intelligent approaches that have afforded her work their places in galleries such as Moma and Smithsonian.
In a parallel hosting by Everard Read Johannesburg and Everard Read Cape Town, “Dreams of Immortality” stands as Bell’s Magnum Opus, both in the popular sense of the term, having been described as her most important exhibition to date, as well as on a more Hermetical level. As ‘spiritual pursuit’, contrasting her earlier political and gender themes, the artist aims to achieve the union of opposites: soul with god, tangible with intangible, visible with invisible, power with vulnerability—and thereby aims to establish her own voice, her own form. She describes her art-making as rooted in both memory and precognition, of herself being medium and base metal. To Bell, art is alchemy, and a practice dedicated to creating something that stands beyond time. Undeniably, her bronzes have a feeling of permanence, of ancientness. Perhaps, their timeless aura derives from antique temple figurines, or their incorporating the African ideal of honouring the ‘original material’ from which an object is crafted. The sedimentary-like robes of bronzes such as the priestly “Sphinx”, having been sculpted from clay, pays homage to stone as ancestor; the figure seemingly rises spontaneously from without a layer of illusory strata in metamorphic form and texture. The works “Fragment” and the four Shabti-like figures of the “Custodian” series bear an erosive quality due to what the artist describes as her process of “creation and destruction”: a zestful mark-making that aligns her with the forces that weather, like wind and water. Her “Misericordia” pays homage to the 1950 “Chariot” and Giacometti’s style of embracing the spontaneity of plaster; allowing the medium to run and drip as it pleases. In contrast, her faces are carefully fashioned, sometimes reworked many times until they resemble, according to the artist, whom she feels they are. According to Bell, her latest paintings, and etchings especially, offer an anomaly: they are planned, pictured with a specific purpose in mind, and executed strategically. Her etchings referencing Velasquez are perhaps of key significance when considering her move from gender-political themes to art as personal and spiritual practice. These recall a very private work from 20 years ago, inspired by “Las Meninas” entitled “Will You Never Know Who You Are?”. On suggestion from William Kentridge, Bell decided to revisit the theme of the etching, seeking, perhaps, an answer to the work she calls a self-portrait. In fact, according to Bell, each and every work is a self-portrait. She is the archaic lion, the winged victor, both the Infanta Margaret Theresa and the high-heeled figure crouching in the shadows. She finds the ‘I’, within the ‘others’, the ‘others’ within the self. It is a conceptual union of being beyond borders. Similarly, and perhaps one could say metaphorically, her techniques transcend medium. She sculpts as if painting: coiling the clay without armature, working from the bottom up, the inside out, and embraces the sculptural and responsive qualities of drawing on lithographic stone and the spontaneity of painting goldleaf on Chinese paper, allowing it to be swallowed, to become an unseen part of the paper. Fittingly, she calls her process a “push and pull of surrender and will, the dance of finding beautiful form”. This is the alchemy: the mixing of technical forcefulness and subtlety, the combination of the brush and the angle grinder, the theurgy of a meditative mark, and the artistry on lithographic stone beneath chemical layers of asphaltum, gum Arabic, lithothine, rosin and talc.
Whether you believe in enchantment, or allow the works to speak for themselves in their more earthly, physical manifestation and form, one can congratulate Bell on having succeeded in the alchemist goal of having, in her own way, turned ordinary materials into gold.