In his second show at Sadie Coles HQ, SOFT IS HARD (Work), Dirk Bell is exhibiting a series of new steel sculptures alongside a body of paintings, drawings and sculptural assemblages of found and refashioned objects.
The "word grids" are cut from single sheets of steel using lasers. The letters are spelt through geometric arrangements of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines – simplified and abutted to the point of being barely readable. Certain word-sculptures have been leaned obliquely against the walls to produce evasive shadows. Wherever the letter "L" occurs, the girds are punctuated by Bell's "LOVE" symbol (an integration of the four letters, which has become a recurring emblem in the artist's work).
Bell's sculptures recall the flat geometric arrangements of Modernist Constructivism, and refer to the concrete poetry of the 1960s and 70s, in which words were presented as sculptural objects while conveying the shifting connotations of a poem. Yet they generate a tension or discrepancy between graphic appearance, semantic meaning and the physical presence expressed by shape and volume.WORKSHOP (2012), compresses the idea of an unbreakable cycle of working and shopping, while also nostalgically evoking the idea of a workshop as a place of collaboration. The sculptures WORKOUTOPIAN and BURNOUTOPIAN (2012), which form a gate-like pair, suggest a cycle of idealistic exercise and dispiriting exhaustion, satirising popular fixations with health and fitness and wryly reflecting contemporary obsessions with youth as a fleeting stage which gives way to decades of "old age" and, ultimately, death.
In RETOUR Nowhere (2012), Bell has installed an assemblage of found items centred upon a mannequin whose head is painted with a pattern based on Nubian tribal face-painting. The work offsets disparate materials and aesthetics in an embodiment of "soft" and "hard". The mannequin protrudes from an old leather sofa, and is draped with items including a chequered cloth and a photograph of a modern tattoo. Evoking Hans Bellmer's surreally-fragmented and reconfigured dolls, the sculpture comprises what Bell calls "a skeleton of unwanted things", seemingly on the point of falling apart. The sculpture expresses the notion of remembering – both in the sense of recollection (with all its gaps and distortions and amalgamations) and of trying to re-assemble the component parts of a thing. Like some of the word grids, it articulates a failed ideal, at once suggesting a desire to access an unreal world, and an imperfect and degraded set of tools for doing so.
In a series of found and modified paintings, Bell has superimposed existing paintings bought from flea markets with images in black or white paint. Four kitsch images of landscapes have been juxtaposed to create a composite landscape or panorama of piled-up "ideals" (common motifs such as tracks and lakes appear oddly multiplied). In three lined-up portraits, Bell creates a"book cover for a book that doesn't exist", discerning in the images of an old man, a young woman and a middle-aged woman portraits of characters in a Russian novel, symbolising archetypal "big themes" of youth, old-age, jealousy, death.
The way in which viewers are required to believe (or to suspend disbelief) is neatly dramatised in a fridge installed beneath a geometric arrangement of neon lights. The light inside has been modified so that it only turns on when the door is closed – an inversion of its usual function. The configuration of lights spells "N8" (standing for Nacht, "night", and 8, referring to the fact that one light turns off at eight in the morning, and off at eight at night). Dirk Bell's art voices a desire to repair – both in the sense of making good and of going back – through processes of retrieval and accumulation, and through verbal and sculptural amalgamation.
Dirk Bell (b. 1969) has exhibited internationally; solo shows include Retour, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany (2011); Made in Germany, travelling between The Modern Institute, Glasgow, Sadie Coles HQ, London, and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead (2010); Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden (2009); and Kunsthalle Bremerhaven (2006). In 2012 he mounted a joint show with Frederic Detjens and Marcus Steinweg, GRID R, Melas Papadopoulos, Athens; he has also been featured in group exhibitions including Gesamtkunstwerk: New Art from Germany, Saatchi Gallery, London (2011-12); Melanchotopia, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, Netherlands (2010); and Old Ideas, Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, Switzerland (2010). Bell lives and works in Berlin.