We had the good fortune of connecting with John Bell and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi John, what role has taking risk played in your life and career?
I think risk lies beyond the edge of routine and subscribed ways of thinking. There are so many well-worn paths we can take in life that have predictable results. For most, risk lies at the edge of those paths where everything is known… beyond them is where fears large and small, mystery and possibility live. I have learned to walk past conventional edges, embrace what I find there and it has become fertile ground for my life and career. I had always been a fringe dweller, walking a crooked line between both spaces. There was a period in my 20’s where risk became a palpable factor, where I learned that there are rewards for embracing it. I was on one of those well-worn career paths and against all advice quit, sold nearly everything I owned, and road tripped it west to live a life that made me happy as opposed to the one I was conditioned since youth to strive for. Crisscrossing the country for four years from Ohio to Breckenridge CO, Mendocino CA to Park City UT. I have been a ski bum, beach bum and biker, started a business and failed, dabbled briefly in the restaurant world, started another business and succeeded. In 14 years, I have opened the same art gallery twice. Like many, I have suffered tremendous loss and through risk learned to turn that into motivation… all the while maintaining a studio practice and developing a successful career as an artist. Admittedly, it rarely flows with the perceived ease of hindsight and the written word, but it’s worth it. There’s no blueprint on how to embrace risk, I can only offer a rough sketch, which is this; trust your instincts, you have them for a reason. Get a good bullshit detector and learn how to use it. Be bold in the face of fear and I promise you will find out what you are capable of. You will find clarity in understanding self, in the people you choose to surround yourself with, and finally in what it is you want to do. For myself, in many ways’ art has become the lens through which I process life, so of course the way I live it is reflected in the work. For what it’s worth here’s a few things I’ve learned; art doesn’t live in the studio, it’s not hidden in a canvas waiting for divine inspiration to strike… it is in you, so don’t wait for it, chase it down. You can make art out of anything, from the objects you find to the experiences in your life. The journey risk takes you on helps to access what’s exciting, inspiring and true inside of you, when you find those things you will start to make authentic work. Here are few examples of taking risks in my career and with my art that were successful.
In 2004 I visited Art Basel Miami for the first time and was blown away. For the next four years I obsessed over finding a way in, which I found by ultimately representing myself at the “artist fair” in 2008, a very expensive and risky move for an unknown and unrepresented artist. Through that experience I found representation and have been invited to return seven times since. I have met fascinating and interesting people from all over the world at those shows and have been fortunate enough to have many of them collect my art, and even more fortunate to call a few of them friends.
The performance piece “The Next Supper” where in an attempt to break down the wall between artist and viewer and record viewers reaction to my work directly on my art, I invited 75 people to dinner, sitting them at an 80-foot table with my unfinished canvases as the tablecloth. They were served a seven-course meal, copious amounts of wine and asked to react to the ideas presented, the only caveat being they had to record their reactions with the only medium available to them… their dinner. This was all done with the viewers as performers in a live installation in the main gallery of a museum… on view to the public for its duration. This could have easily been a disaster, but instead to my surprise, it has become one of my most successful works. People to this day still tell me how much they loved it, that it was their most memorable art experience.
The piece titled “Kind of Blue”. This work is a physical manifestation of a piece music, it was conceived out of my obsession with the Miles Davis album of the same title… I was so taken by the music and the way that it affected me, it’s ambiguous sense of time and place. I wanted to create a painting that did something similar with visual cues that mimicked a musical composition. This was achieved by using freestanding four sided paintings and a wall hung panel, in short creating an environment the viewer could walk into and be immersed in the painting as you are with music. It was painted in place so that the viewer could experience compositional and spatial shifts that in one instant connect the canvases, and a step later dissolve, leading you to the next verse. This took up half of my studio for nearly an entire year, with many studio visitors expressing their appreciation while voicing their concerns of “what in the hell are you going to do with this thing?” Which was not the starting consideration for me, it was just to realize an idea I wanted to see. Ultimately it was sold to Bill Silva of Silva productions in Hollywood within a week of me completing it, serendipitously on the same day he signed the contracts to manage the Miles Davis estate.
Please tell us more about your art. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally? Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way? What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
I believe the above Q&A about risk addresses how I got here and my reaction to challenges. As far as what sets me apart? well, I am a multidisciplinary artist. A painter, sculptor, performance artist, photographer and writer. Of course, there are so many talented artists out there I admire with incredible arsenals of skills, in the end I believe its perspective and personality that comes through in our art that set us apart. I believe the best work not only speaks to the times it was created in, but most importantly it inspires viewers to access questions within themselves. Those are the two points on the horizon I am always aiming at. Stylistically I refer to my work as postmodern mash-up. Visually it is a combination of elements from various periods and styles in the art world, past and present. Subject wise my main inquiry is an examination of our cultural values, mainly through the lens of social media, although I’m prone to wander off in the direction of other intriguing questions from time to time. What am I proud of? The fact that I have gone my own way, have used what intrigues me in the context of my work, and have found connections and conversations through that with viewers. I’ve been able to manifest a body of work that I wanted to see that still holds my interest and maintains those connections. What am I excited about? Almost always the latest thing I’m working on, which currently is recap of a 14-year body of work… a magnum opus painting which is 78 feet long and composed of 26 panels. This was not commissioned (speaking to the question of risk) it is something I wanted to experience. To revisit past ideas and see how they hold up and how they will be reinterpreted through what I’ve learned. Working at this scale has been equally daunting and fascinating, I am quite literally working in the painting as I work on it. What I have observed is that what was initially a concern became a prophecy, and that is that we are willing to give up our privacy for in exchange for the internet version of fame or celebrity… and in doing so have aided in laying the groundwork for a surveillance state, which we are well into in 2021. I believe that most people aren’t completely aware of this, they’re too consumed with our digital avatars. I see a shrinking public domain where information and images are off-limits for us to use, yet we’ve given away the rights to our own image carte blanche in exchange for free access to social media platforms. I see this piece as a reminder or a roadmap as to how we arrived at this moment, a jumping off point for a larger conversation. What have I learned along the way? Life is short and doesn’t always go as planned. Nothing is free. The difference you make in other people’s lives is the only thing that matters. There is duality in everything. Boldness pays dividends, meekness taxes you. Be open to possibility. Everything is a choice. A sense of humor is one of the most important things to possess. That shifting the paradigm and asking what it is I might like about someone or something as opposed to what turns you off will bring you so much more of everything in life, with friends, ideas, love and success. What do I want the world to know about my brand and story? That they are invited.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
First stop Publik kitchen for my favorite avocado toast breakfast and the best latte in town. For lunch take them into a little alleyway in downtown Salt Lake City to Pretty Bird for spicy hot chicken sandwiches or Mazza for a chicken shawarma sandwich. The day wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Ken Sanders rare books to dig for hardback first editions and then 10 steps south to the Green Ant to shoot the shit with Ron Green and check out some vintage mid-century furniture. Would hit Curriculum BARBER SHOP for a hot towel, scalp massage and straight razor shave combo, for gentlemen that is. Catch the latest show at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art or visit the gallery I run with my partner artist Janell James, ONE Modern Art and go digging for vinyl at Randy’s Record Shop, maybe catch an independent film at the Tower theater or Broadway theaters. Stop in for an Epic Beer and sushi from Takashi. A hike together on the Shoreline Trail near the Natural History Museum, which is a stunning piece of architecture… Stop in at bar X downtown or Undercurrent for the perfect artisan cocktail before hitting any number of great restaurants downtown, Current Seafood, Finca, Valter’s Osteria for epic Italian and the show that is Valter himself, The Copper Onion or road trip it up to SUNDANCE for a pepper steak at the Tree Room and an evening of blues at the Owl Bar, Take in some nature with a hike up to Stewart Falls while we’re there. finish up one evening at my house with a bonfire in the pit out by the creek, taking in the stars and sharing stories.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Well, to the muse and all its various forms…to Janell James who has become my heart. Barbara Bell, for giving me that heart. Chuck Bell for teaching me about hard work and how invaluable and indispensable a sense of humor is. Todd Warner for teaching me the rare value of true friendship. Marko Barker for always reminding me of that value and that the answer is always yes, you can. My sister and brother Tiffany & Scott for still being my sister and brother even after the “black sheep years”. Vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream with espresso and sea salt. Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ricky Lee Jones, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Jimmy page, Miles Davis, Radiohead, Bach, Vivaldi, Chris Whitley Pink Floyd and Wilco. Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Adam Bateman, Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol. Angelo Ciotti, my favorite art schoolteacher who simultaneously taught me first thought best thought, now tear it up throw it out and start over. The epic poem, Jack Kerouac, Brian Craft, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Edward Abby, Stephen Dunn, and KISS. Gallery owners, curators and obsessive art collectors, Leo Fender, my 1977 Fahara Fawcett poster and Carroll Shelby. All my friends and family near and far, past and present. Orson Wells, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen King, Hawkeye Pierce, George Carlin, Ernest Hemingway, the muddled mint margarita, French wine makers and Thomas Keller. Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Mies van der Rohe, Ray and Charles Eames, Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhamad Ali, the 1990 Fat Boy, 1969 Camaro Z28 RS and the 1964 Ferrari GTO because damn… COFFEE, the perfect Latte, Mexican beaches, Venice (both of them) NYC, homemade Lemon Cello and the Amalfi coast. Hushed conversations in low lit bars with the smell of cloves and jazz drifting about. Live music, a straight razor shave at an old-school barbershop, sex, sensuality, a kiss so deep you expose your soul, the perfect steak, cheeseburgers in Paris with Pomes Frites, the heft and scent of hardback first editions, the feel and smell of fine leather, laughing until it hurts and whoever invented bourbon…
John Bell, Skylar Simpson, Craig Cleveland & Steve Stanton