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Haste Slowly

Peta-Jane Field on Trevor Bell


“If there are no straight lines in nature, why should an artist try to confine forms with such borders in painting?”

Trevor Bell’s latest body of work, displayed at the Millennium, evinces a surprising delicacy: a gentle almost fragile quality.  As ever with Trevor’s work, like the title of this exhibition, it is paradoxical; in its seeming fragility, there is great strength and passion, in its execution an unhurried swiftness.  In one painting Trevor scraped out a thin line, filled it with different colours and now it pirouettes and dances across his canvas.  Elsewhere, his marks are fluid, lissome and lyrical, and his colour sensuous.

Whilst Trevor’s non-figurative, coloured and monochrome paintings make no explicit reference to the landscape or external objects, the expressive spontaneity and intuitive spirit which they evoke make them accessible.  Perhaps referring obliquely to the ambiguities in Trevor’s work, the owner of the Millennium, Joseph Clarke says, “With Trevor's paintings there is a sense of both the stillness and energy of nature, which relates very specifically to what I experience in Cornwall. They also speak of the duality of 'ourselves'.  The clamour and the conflict that we all experience as human beings. It is a privilege to represent such a painter: important both currently and historically.”

In 1958, Patrick Heron considered Trevor to be ‘the best non-figurative painter under thirty’ and, today, no other painter of his generation working in Cornwall matches him in daring and drive. Once Trevor said, “I am a bit like the cat who walks by himself.”  Chris Stephens of Tate Britain believes, “Trevor’s work has continuously tested new ground …”  Following his maxim to ‘never repeat’, his latest work shows how, once again, he has scaled new intellectual, spiritual and visual heights.  Even if some of the work is not physically monumental, it is audacious in concept.  Which other painter today can produce an immaculate colour field painting, pure and seemingly simple, and then, in the words of Patrick Heron, ‘re-complicate it?’  Yet nothing is forced, nothing is untrue.

“If there are no straight lines in nature, why should an artist try to confine forms with such borders in painting?”  Trevor created his first brilliantly original shaped paintings in the early sixties.  Idiosyncratically, Trevor’s latest circular shaped paintings have vividly coloured contrasting bevelled edges.  These carry the painting onwards and outwards in a seemingly contradictory manner.  For instance, one mesmerising ‘black’ and ‘white’ painting has a partially red, partially white edge which gives it a pinkish aura and an off-ochre coloured painting has an acidic green bevelled edge which gives it a luminous glow.  “The colour on the edge, while not playing a major role - I do not have that colour as a ‘prettifying’ factor but as a structural phenomena, it makes the painting hover off the wall so it becomes a structural entity in itself.” Trevor explains. 

Of course, none of Trevor’s paintings are actually ‘black’ or ‘white’ or, indeed, any single tone of colour.  They are blueish-purpley-black, as black would be known to a miner who knows all shades and densities of coal, and soft-off white, as recognised by an Eskimo who knows all the hues and depths of snow.  Radiantly alive, rich and luminous, his colours seem to hum with a spiritual resonance.  While he firmly rejects and eliminates all elements of metaphor or narrative or indeed any form of figuration in his work, he is alive to the idea of sources which work on the subconscious.  “Of course, I respond to the tensions and dynamics of the elemental forces around me, how could it be otherwise?” he says.

Chris Stephens referred to the consistency in his work, how values seen in one body of work inform the next.  Arguably, his paintings are little worlds which, like the planets in the solar system, feed off each other’s energy, enabling each to have a life of its own.  Like every great painter, alchemy is in the air of his studio.  Previously, Trevor may have painted monumental ‘vast emptiness, the void and shown it to be beautiful’, as can be seen from the huge canvasses on display.  But, in this exhibition, he is showing how small and delicate can be awe-inspiring, too.

Haste Slowly can be seen at the Millennium gallery, Street-an-Pol, St Ives from Sat 4 Apr to Mon 4 May. For full details, please telephone: 01736  793121 or visit www.millenniumgallery.co.uk

A fully illustrated new monograph on Trevor Bell’s life and work is also available for purchase

Article first published in 'Inside Cornwall'