Larry Bell: Smoke On The Bottom

Larry Bell: Smoke On The Bottom

By Matthew Hearn

White Cube, Bermondsey
Fri 28 April – Sun 18 June 2017

Paraphrasing Larry Bell, there is an illusion to simplicity. There is an exacting attention to detail which extends from the construction of the individual works in Smoke On The Bottom, through to the control asserted over the gallery spaces of White Cube. First impressions cannot escape how the inverted reflections of the vapour drawings and mirage paintings float on the high-gloss gallery floor. Similarly, how the eight-cubic-glass-forms of 6 x 6 An Improvisation (1989 - 2014), echo the light panels in the gallery ceiling. Although for Bell glass exhibits certain material qualities which he harnesses in the work, he has always asserted that neither glass, nor any of the other materials he employs constitute the work – rather it is the light hitting them.

Larry Bell, 6 x 6 An Improvisation (1989 - 2014).
Larry Bell, 6 x 6 An Improvisation (1989 - 2014). Clear glass, grey glass, and glass coated with Inconel (Nickel/chrome alloy). © Larry Bell. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby).

A founder of the American Light and Space Movement, alternatively coined ‘finish fetishism’, Bell’s practice has consistently pushed the viewer to question the ambiguousness of what you are looking at. Bell’s practice began in 1970s west-coast America; a product of endless sun, infinite horizon lines and mirage. Though the works presented here span a career to include a new series of works from last year, their broader contemporaneousness is palpable; a clear debt to the processes and aesthetic of Bell’s work can be traced through much of the work currently categorised under the bracket of post-internet art. On these terms his works are like portals that cannot be entered; like a screen they outwardly project light and information.

The early works we first encounter in the gallery highlight the beginnings of this lifetime of alchemic experimentation. Made through thermal evaporation of aluminium and quartz, the coated papers are collaged together to create a series of gradated colourfield which flip and invert across multiple axis. Cut, spliced and woven together the mix of alloyed papers coagulate in a mix of fluid and geometric abstract forms. Manipulating symmetry and illusionary effect, the forms sit up and off the paper and as light refracts from their surfaces colours blur and separate, pool and stratify.

Larry Bell, 6 x 6 An Improvisation (1989 - 2014).
Larry Bell, 6 x 6 An Improvisation (1989 - 2014). Clear glass, grey glass, and glass coated with Inconel (Nickel/chrome alloy). © Larry Bell. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby).
Larry Bell, Smoke on the Bottom, installation view.
Larry Bell, Smoke on the Bottom, installation view. © Larry Bell. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby).

Reconfiguring a work originating from 1989 the centrepiece of the show is 6 x 6 An Improvisation. Assembled from 32 6ft glass panels, each section is individually treated through his signature plating process resulting in different-density dustings of the vaporised metal. The varied saturation, opacity and light differentials of the work allow the eight cubic forms to seemingly expand and contract, appear and disappear. As viewers we have agency in moving through the labyrinth of voluminous forms, but it is the flow of light which controls our perception of the space.

Larry Bell, Smoke on the Bottom, installation view.
Larry Bell, Smoke on the Bottom, installation view. © Larry Bell. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby).
Larry Bell, Smoke on the Bottom, installation view.
Larry Bell, Smoke on the Bottom, installation view. © Larry Bell. Photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby).

The ‘Church Studies’ (2016) adopt a more painterly appearance. Constructed from different textural surfaces, materials and patinas affixed onto block colour Japanese papers, these assemblages not only allow more figurative forms to emerge, but coupled with matching coloured frames, they are in every sense spectacular. Given Bell’s minimalist associations, these works are somewhat surprising. However, in acknowledging the artist’s illusionary tendencies here, we must agree the work is about creating just such unexpected moments. Exactly how we perceive them is left up to us as viewers.

Matthew Hearn is a writer and curator based in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is a lecturer on the BxNU MFA at Northumbria University.

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