ASPEN - Those rides Stanley Bell took each morning to downtown Dallas, to attend Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, made a deep, lasting impact. Bell, who studied painting and printmaking at CU, Boulder and has lived in the valley for 8 years, has developed a visual language that is very much based on the cityscape as it appeared to him, the way the tall buildings of downtown Dallas would come into sight, grow bigger and bigger till they loomed over him.
Not long ago, after taking a few classes at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center that focused on critiquing his work, Bell began thinking that maybe downtown Dallas had burrowed too deep into his creative mind. Entering his mid-30s, Bell was still making those familiar cityscape-inspired paintings. While his work was being shown consistently around the valley, including a one-person exhibition in the lobby of Aspen's Wheeler Opera House in early 2010, Bell was feeling the need to shake things up.
"You can get stuck in your own style, your own scale," the 35-year-old Bell said. "Getting out of your comfort zone, that's the hardest thing to do. Like moving from coffee to tea - that's a big, tough transition."
To get new perspective on his work, Bell has literally given his work a new perspective. Inspired by a video called "Powers of Ten" - which zooms from a man sunbathing alongside Lake Michigan out to galaxies millions of light years away, then back in to the man, examining him on an atomic level - Bell has been taking a closer look at his work. His latest series of paintings began with one of his cityscapes. From that, he focused on a small portion of the work and imagined what that piece would look like, blown up many times bigger. He continued that process, taking a small piece from each successive painting, until he had a series of works. Those pieces, which Bell calls the "organelle" paintings, are featured in an exhibition titled #Black Friday, which opens at the Gonzo Museum in Aspen on Friday with a reception at 6 p.m. Bell will give a talk about the work at 8 p.m.
If the goal was to create work that doesn't resemble the cityscapes, Bell has triumphed. The final painting in the organelle series, "The Soft Matter," represents a radical break with the busy, information-heavy pieces Bell has made in the past. The work is more abstract, simpler, allowing the viewer to settle his eye more easily on the relatively few elements.
"I always have to restrain myself from doing the same thing over and over, Bell said. "That's why the Power of Ten video interested me. It was a guide to go into one of my paintings and progress from there. That microscopic level, that's where I'm going, that same direction. From far to close to microscopic."
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Bell's bottom-line interest isn't in buildings, streets and architecture, nor is it in microscopic biology and cell structure. What Bell is exploring in his paintings is human energy. Whether the image resembles an urban skyline or is entirely abstract, the painting is Bell's channeling of people - their interactions, moods, vibes.
"In past paintings, I always thought about the action going on, the exchanges, the feelings people had, the anger, the happiness. This is a city and I imagine all the energy that the population produces," Bell said. "All that stuff is going on - but where is it? Some of the spots in the paintings are real lively, some are real dark, and that's all people's energy. When I walk around in everyday life, I always look at that. When Whole Foods first opened up, there was a lot of good energy in there."
The more recent paintings do a similar thing, but on a smaller scale. Where the cityscapes captured the energy of an entire downtown, the organelles narrow things down. The #Black Friday exhibition even includes numerous small-scale paintings that Bell says are meant to "isolate individual energies."
"There's a lot going on in what people give off," Bell said. "There are these microscopic energies."
In addition to perspective and scale, Bell has been experimenting with his surfaces. Where his older paintings were on wood, he switched to canvas for the larger new pieces, and the change has required a radical adjustment in his methods. Where building up layers of paint and other materials on wood is relatively simple, canvas requires more thought and effort. Bell has also begun contemplating turning the organelles into 3-D sculptures.
Perhaps the biggest lesson Bell has learned is restraint. The cityscape paintings were marked by their busyness, the idea that a whole lot was going on in there. The zoomed-in perspective requires less visual information.
"To leave all this open space in a piece - that's hard for me to accept," Bell said. "I really wanted to add more detail. I had to walk out of the room. I have to keep that awareness in my head that I'm taking one piece of it and trying to keep it simple. The simpleness is what I'm trying to get to. These are probably going to get to the point where it's just a black box in the corner. And you're going to say, 'How did that get there?'"
The change in style has been accompanied by a change in career. A few months ago, Bell left his job as a graphic designer for a real estate company, and has focused exclusively on his art. (This winter, he will work in the Aspen Skiing Company's Treehouse Kids Center, in Snowmass Village, where he hopes to implement an arts program.)
With all the changes, it has satisfied Bell to see that the distinct personality of his work remains. Bell has established a color palate and a set of shapes that form a thread from the older work through the new. "I am trying to create a visual language so people can see it and go, 'Oh, that's Stan's work,'" he said.
All the adjustments he has made in his technique and approach have left Bell not only painting in a new way, but also thinking with a renewed sense of wonder about things. The organelle paintings, he said, "remind me there's a bigger picture out there. It's more than just us. There's a big universe out there. That's been freeing, to think that way."