Remnants of clay and paint, plush toys and figurines, comics and magazines, primal plasticine paintings and animate illustrated landscapes – artist Martin Bell's endless collection of objects and works forge connections between his local landscape, the makings of modern man and an intimate world of personal and imagined narratives.
At his serene Snake Valley studio, a 30-minutes drive from Ballarat, Bell recovers a form of social realism linking past and present realities. His hugely varied practice – which includes bronzes, books, plasticine paintings, sculpture and fine-line drawings (mostly modelled from toys, decorative art objects and other collected ephemera) – rethinks our experience of place, objects and time, imbuing everyday encounters with an imaginative, lateral bent.
A long-time member of The Serps creative collective, Bell's artistic career has manifested in various modes and contexts, including that of his prolific self-publishing practice. After showing with Tolarno at the 2012 Melbourne Art Fair to great acclaim, Skull Gully II – which opens this weekend – is his first exhibition in the famed gallery as a represented artist. We take a tour of Bell’s studio and chat with him about the work for his debut exhibition.
Rebecca Vaughan: How long have you been in Snake Valley?
Martin Bell: I made a couple of series of work here in the early 2000s, and recently moved back here a year ago. I came here on the weekends as a kid, visiting my dad's mud-brick cottage around the corner. The majority of the work that is in the show was done both here and at my dad's, as it has a strong relationship to the surrounding landscape and to Werribee Gorge as well. So this region really ties back into the drawings I'm doing now. There is an area where I'd built a cubby house as a kid called Skull Gully, which is what this coming show is in reference to, Skull Gully II.
RV: Your studio is full of images and objects collected from car-boot sales, auctions and markets – a place to unpack and explore various networks of connections. How do you coordinate your work from this?
MB: Most of my work is derived from the modelling of toys or collectable decorative art objects, however their portrayal could be informed by a comic or from an art history reference. It's not entirely art or non-art. I mean, the plasticine paintings are not drawings and they're not collages, but my collage and drawing practices have informed the way I've constructed them.
RV: Do you think about your plasticine paintings, which are more sculptural, in relationship to your drawings in the same way?
MB: Yes. It would be better to say I could never do only one thing. I studied a lot of sculpture, mould-making, printmaking, etching, lino-cutting and fine line works through formal training and teaching art for over 10 years. So I'm interested in a lot of practical approaches, which relate very strongly not only to painting and drawing, but also to cut-and-paste collage and image making in a more material sense.
RV: Your drawings represent a fragmented but expressive style. What goes into your illustrated works?
MB: I was an art teacher for more than 10 years and working with kids for so long allowed me to be less precious about the work. I believe in daydream, the expression and gesture of toys and the ephemeral quality of a dog-eared comic. I find escapism in imaginative play, as a child would. The new 2D works in Skull Gully II have a lot of playful architectural references and imagery, which is connected to the physical landscape and the memory of that area.
RV: You reference the memory of objects, occurrences and places in your work. Tell me about that.
MB: The show at Tolarno focuses a lot on a spiritual and also a literal connectedness to the history of an object or place. This is why I was interested in publishing work I did when I was a kid, because I felt that it was no less relevant to the work I did today. I think it's cool to have everything existing at once and to look at the dialogue between past, present and future.
RV: You've published five books, starting with My Birthday Party in 2007 and most recently ROCKS AND DVDS $2, accompanying your upcoming exhibition at Tolarno. How do you feel about exhibiting in a gallery, especially in the context of your books, which suggest a more intimate, informal kind of exchange.
MB: I think that books are fantastic, because you share them with lots of people and they're completely informal. I'm really new to exhibiting, but I've found the collaborative feedback aspect to be really good and the majority of work I've made since joining Tolarno has been enriched through that experience.
Skull Gully II shows at Tolarno Galleries in the CBD from July 27 to August 24.