Is Dirk Bell the rag-picker of art history? This is certainly the impression created by his installation Amaia (2007): a shop-window dummy, wigless and lacking a left hand, a firework rocket in her arms, poses as a painter awaiting inspiration. In front of her stands a white plate in which the black paint has dried out, and an easel several meters tall. Instead of a canvas, there is old reddish brown linoleum cut in strips from the floor of Bells studio and stapled onto wooden palettes that have been added to the top and sides of the easel. The dummy is covered with a fine web of drawings, the style of which wavers between old master figure studies and heavy metal cover art.
Over the past two decades, the period covered by this first major retrospective entitled Retour (Back), Bell has worked his way through more or less every style in art since the Renaissance from Art Nouveau female nudes, via installations with the mutilated mannequins so beloved of the Surrealists, through to Minimalist neon tube sculptures, and back to Romantic evening moods on canvas. But in each case, just as the tutored eye is about to assign the piece in question to the corresponding art historical pigeonhole, Bell renders such clear identification impossible by means of overpainting, vandalism or pathos-laden framing so that attempts to grasp the work must begin all over again.
The monumental sculpture FREE LOVE (2011) also plays with false expectations, raised in this case by the title. The thick steel bars forming the letters of free and love come together almost aggressively; the way they are wedged into one another largely obscures the words themselves; plus, the struts are pockmarked with countless welds. As a result, there is little evidence of freedom or of the lightness of emotion evoked in the title. Instead, free love appears as an intimidating cage. Like a heavy-duty room divider, the sculpture, placed at the centre of the show, partitioned the exhibition space into four areas. Its axes were extended in four walls that offered no chronological or thematic ordering of the works shown on them.
FREE LOVE was made for the Munich show, and it feels like a distillation of Bells diverse uvre, which takes a bold new approach to one of arts great themes love. The female body is devotedly watercoloured onto newsprint, a breast dusted onto paper with chalk or drawn onto tracing paper with virtuosity, a female outline carved into an old black wooden door. In these works, Bells love of evocative materials acts as a shield against excessive sentiment. The surfaces dented, scratched, maltreated by time are seemingly impermeable to the undeniably boyish romantic kitsch of the motifs. The found materials tell their own story. Good that Bell is such an enthusiastic collector.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell