Go no further: Deborah Bell’s blithe skirting with gods

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Veteran South African artist, Deborah Bell’s latest exhibition showcases the kind of muscular body of work that gives you courage: the art world is indeed not comprised only of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, to say nothing of self-indulgent sophistry and vague conceptual ideas poorly translated. Rather, the evolution of her work over the last three decades, dancing blithely away from trend or facileness, has shifted its focus and meaning into more and more ancient reflections on what art began as: magic. And her currently exhibition at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg represents a pinnacle of not only personal achievement, but in terms of gallery acumen.

This body of more than 70 individual pieces does not court magic in any obvious or sensationalist – or even easy – way. There’s a gritty sense of energy applied to the supports in Bell’s drawings and etchings which given them verve and suck you into the compositions in a way which is uplifting and imminently peaceful.

The etchings, paintings and drawings, in a variety of sizes and cast in different groups with distinct focuses feature the figure of a woman. She is sylph like and dispassionate in her mien, a spiritual self-portrait, she is mostly unclothed and offers a sentinel reflection on how to look at the material. Another motif is an angel in the doorway. And then, there are the horses and the lion skins.

Touching and thinking about everything in art history from Marcel Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare to Velásquez’s quintessential works, which are about painting as much as they are about context, there’s a hint of Michelangelo here, and a touch of Goya there: this is the work of an artists’ artist: Bell doesn’t refer to her artistic progenitors with casualness or forcedness or without developed thought. The language of the medium infiltrates her own with a smooth synchronicity: this is not an art history lesson or a boastful essay on Bell’s own conversance with the gods of history: rather it’s a comfortable, yet quirky, deliverance of a discipline in which she is comfortable with her role and her contribution.

The resonance between Bell’s knowledge and reflection on pagan and ancient values and story telling is palpable: the manner in which this extraordinary exhibition bleeds and flows through the rooms in the gallery give you the urge to get on your knees and worship, if not simply weep: she reins in the essence of so much that in the hands of a lesser artist would be overwhelming. Instead, there’s a sonority that will not leave you.

And these are all the emotions you will experience before you enter the unquestionable pièce de résistance of the exhibition. Return of the gods is a compilation of five larger than life sculptures, each with a figure protruding from his or her head. As you walk into the darkened space, a device marking your movement activates the ‘voice’ of each figure.

It may be the chord of a single-stringed instrument. Or the voice of a ram’s horn. It may be the sound of a violin or of Xhosa song. Each differs and resonates through your heart and into your soul: it’s like being in the presence of Tibetan bowls being played. It’s a keening resonance that fills you up and gives you goosebumps. Composed by Philip Miller for these works in this context, this coming together of aural, spiritual and sculptural wisdom and beauty is nothing short of overwhelming. It is the kind of keynote experience that will touch you forever and make you feel cleansed and ready to face the crassness of the world. It might also make you feel that looking at art becomes redundant after this experience.

  • Dreams of Immortality, an exhibition of new work by Deborah Bell is on show at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg until June 27. She is also showing work at Everard Read in Cape Town: May 14-June 15; and a body of etchings collectively called Renunciation at the David Krut Project space in Parkwood, until June 12.
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