Originally published May 2012 in Art Ltd. Magazine
Jason Robert Bell
mixed media on wood panel
40" x 30"
Photo: courtesy Thomas Robertello Gallery
School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum Jason Robert Bell has been an artist-in-residence at Thomas Robertello Gallery for the past year, creating work each month for the small alcove of the gallery known as the Project Space. These monthly exhibitions have showcased the artist's cohesive body of work, ranging in media from representational painting, to drawing, collage, and sculptural works, all illustrating an overarching narrative of gritty, fantastical science fiction.
The notion of "illustration" is precisely the difference between the past works of the project space and the solo exhibition in the main space entitled, "The One Man Army Corpse." The exhibition is centered on The White Feathered Octopus (2012), a 300-page book written by the artist during a three-month, bed-ridden (and most likely pharmaceutical-laden) recovery from a bizarre medical injury. This text, printed and displayed on a shelf in the gallery, is the canon for understanding Bell's previous works, as well as the much more elaborate sculptures and paintings of "The One Man Army Corpse." The book, a stream-of-consciousness, digitally composed saga, merges nightmarish realities and very real nightmares in a manner reminiscent of Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," complete with scatological pseudoscience and twisted religious mythologies. In the text, which varies widely in font type and size, the artist notes that "Everything I tell you here is more or less true, expect [sic] for one event that is totally made up (I'll leave that up to you to figure out, Bright Eyes)," which is the statement that makes the book, and subsequently the artworks, so disturbing. As the artist's lucid recollections of his own life surface in various episodes throughout the text and quickly deteriorate back into the non-narrative nightmares, one constant phrase punctuates the book in an erratic rhythm: "The White Feathered Octopus," whose omnipresence seemingly haunts the artist-author-protagonist.
In the presence of this book, which is decidedly less a story than it is an object, the works in the exhibition are not so much illustrations of the contents of the text as they are the visual aftermath of its exploration of grief and affliction. Bell's assemblage, The Trickster (2012), which combines a loved one's ashes and another's placenta with stretched canvas, gorilla hair and a mountain of the artist's personal effects, is an example of this artist's commendable risk-taking: sincerity that is obscene and unflinching.