Dirk Bell

Strange, terrifying and mesmerising

Feature by Jasper Hamill | 15 Jun 2006
The oppositions, contrasts and harmonies between colours have long had a use beyond art. Close to home, the jarring dischord between blue and green is a tonal reflection of the antipathy felt between two teams which, in turn, represent two opposing political or religous stances. In America, the Democrats and Republicans are represented by Blue and Red. Two colours though, the black and white of Manichean Dualism, are more essential in their opposition. Representing the disjunction between presence and absence, positive and negative, night and day or even good and evil, the opposition is by far the most familiar and powerful.

Dirk Bell, for this exhibition, uses mostly black and white, investigating the tensions between them in a series of photograms. Like photographic negatives, the works, pinned straight to the wall, explore the differing expressive connotations of black and white. A pair of works, hung one above the other, show what look likes the same image, reversed completely with the central figure facing in the opposite direction and the tonality completely mirrored in each one. The differing use of black and white completely alters the effect; the lighter one a noble figure on horseback surrounded by a heraldic symbol, the other a black figure, ominously framed within the same shape in white. Exploring the emotive potential of the tones, Bell evokes Gothic Art, Christian Theology and the reductive dualism familiar from fairy tales.

The only figurative work, using a wider palette, uses a figurative semiology familiar from classical art and surrealism: the conch shell, vaginal and alluring; a vase of flowers seemingly in-between decay and vitality, all framed by a shape, rendered in glittering powder, implying the womb. Yet the works that are most startling resemble a surrealist take on the gothic, with effaced figures, nightmarish motifs and strange symbols peppered ominously throughout them. Containing echoes of the armless statues collected in museums, the shape of a phoenix or an odd figure on horseback surface from the miasma, a dreamlike state is unsettlingly synthesised. Rendered in stark black and white, Bell's work is evocative of the Turin Shroud, apparently (according to one theory) the first example of photographic development attained by soaking a sheet in lemon juice and urine then placed over a subject sitting in the sun. But the work only hints at figurative elements, instead scattering body parts, symbols and words throughout the work in a manner similar in intent, although radically different in technique, to the free association of subconscious thoughts in Freud's - and his greatest fans - the surrealists' work.

One work has at its centre a paraplegic figure, armless and legless, straining in space like one of Francis Bacon's tortured, warped bodies. Seemingly crucified, the arms curl off into wings that also resemble the head of a dragon, the head is replaced by what looks like an eye or a nipple and there is the faint suggestion of a halo, ever-so-slightly golden around the figure's head. Strange, terrifying and mesmerising, Bell's work is non-oblique, compelling and fascinating.
The Modern Institute, Glasgow, Until June 13.