The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 29: ASSASSINATION: Jason Robert Bell, Artist Represented by Thomas Robertello Gallery

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Photograph of Jason Robert Bell. Courtesy of Facebook.
Jason Robert Bell: Fireclown #3, 2008, oil, acrylic, epoxy, metallic pigments, collage, sand on canvas, 2.5 by 5.5 inches. Courtesy of Thomas Robertello Gallery.

The golden opportunity to speak my friend Jason Robert Bell, who had gone to Yale University School of Art as I had gone to the same university too, was well appreciated. Bell’s work has matured into a delightful series of mixed media metaphysical portraits of various colorful spirits that inhabited a totally imagined universe that captivates our eyes and senses. The strength of his artwork is evident within his ability to render these entities within a time and space that cannot be pinned down easily.

Also Bell mashes up various conceptual art installation work as if it were executed by a brilliant outsider artist. Those works are pretty hard to describe and I feel that the artist’s words will be more exacting than my hapless phrases.

If you have any questions about Bell’s artwork, feel free to contact Thomas Robertello Gallery at or at (312) 421-1587.

Now here are THE ART ASSASSIN’s details of the startling “assassination”:

qi peng: You call your mixed media paintings which are figurative in subject “metaphysical portraits.” What does the term “metaphysical” mean to you and does it differ from the traditional Greek philosopher’s approach to the subject? You also use a ton of epoxy, collage, and other methods even colored sand to create the final piece. What accounts for the use of such materials? Do you consider yourself to be a shaman or a wizard within your studio setting? What is the magic behind the process of painting?

Jason Robert Bell: In terms of what metaphysics means to me, I’ll go with what Friedrich Nietzsche said “Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest.” I am always on the look out for materials to use, I started using colored sand because I found a box on the street filed with brand new jars of colored sand. I was well aware of the sand paintings of the past, and wanted to access that history. I think of myself as first and foremost an Artist, with a capital “A”, for me that means being a hermitic thinker, who uses the visual arts as a point of entry to explore the larger world of the human imagination. For me that is what art is about, making the invisible seen, bringing the world of the imagination into this world, and merging the two, that is a metaphysical act.

qi peng: Upon looking at the paintings of distorted and colorful characters, would you say that your work has historical similarities to that of Picasso and Glenn Brown? How does your work act as a form of commentary on modernist traditions, particularly cubism? What other historical precedents are there within your paintings and drawings? In what way is the act of painting a form of historical recording?

Jason Robert Bell: In terms of History I would be more connected to ancient Greece, Native American art, Japanese Woodcuts, and European alchemical engravings from the middle ages. However, there reaches a point, where you are no longer thinking about any other artist, you are just making your work, you can’t stand upon the shoulders of giants forever, you have to jump off and see if you can stand on you on two feet. I first art experiences was animated shorts I watched on television when I was a child, The Warner Brothers, MGM, UPA shorts, the work of Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Gene Deitch, and Tex Avery. Synthetic Cubism had a profound influence on that cartooning, so in an indirect way Picasso is in my mind. As an art student I enjoyed the German expressionist, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Oskar Kokoschka, and Paul Klee but also people like William Blake, Frans Hals, Jackson Pollock, Wallace Berman, Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely. Although I was just invested in cartoonist liked Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. I could list dozens of artist that are important to me, but finally you have to be your own artist, you have to cut the head off of the master.

qi peng: A lot of your paintings feature cavemen, primitive people, and wild beasts running rampant around a certain landscape such as the jungle. What draws your imagination towards the primitive and the primal instincts within the human or beast? What emotional connotations exist within your artwork? How do you translate how you feel onto the support, such as the canvas or paper?

Jason Robert Bell: Without trying to put to high-minded Rousseauian spin on this, I think it comes down to trying to connect with the primal positive power of being a living human animal on this very much alive and living earth. I feel one of the great mistakes of our culture is a denial of ourselves as animals, the real king of the beasts, that we are. The bible got it wrong, there was never a fall from grace, this is Eden and we are perfect just as we are, if we wish it to be so. An animal live in an “Eternal Now” that is always what I am going for in my work a space in which there is not past or future on the now.

qi peng: Your Kala series portrays an ongoing portrait of a primitive lady interacting with various objects such as a harp or a fruit or demonstrating emotions such as sadness, etc. Would you say that this is a form of anthropology? What does Kala’s behavior tell us about our identity as humans? What are the proper ethics for humans to treat animals based on the concepts driving your artwork?

Jason Robert Bell: Kala came about slowly over the course of a few years, In many ways she was a self portrait, coming out of the Jungian anima concept, of “the other” we all have within us that is our opposite and our deeper true self. I tried to show a whole range of emotions with Kala, I wanted people to feel pathos for her, to see her as the protagonist of the world she was in. Kala was the fusion of a lot of things in my life, a inside joke with the woman I was dating at the time, an expression of The late Philip José Farmer’s book, Mother Was a Lovely Beast, and a reaction to working as an assistant to Lisa Yuskavage and Kiki Smith. Both of whom I learned a great deal from, in terms of a certain level of fearlessness in terms of subject. I wanted to take what they had done a flip it around, invert it, and turn it into something new. To me Kala is not a human or an animal; she is a monsteress, a totem, a spiritual creature, and a goddess. I did do a few pieces were Kala was fighting present-day human male hunters. For me it just made sense, she was a kind of Mother Nature figure, so that why not have her show some arrogant sportsmen, the real power of nature. I think ideally people should only eat meat if they are willing to do the killing themselves, that being said, I feel that we as the stewards of this earth, should treat animals with respect, regardless if we are using them for food. Life is by its very nature about death and killing, but it should be understood as a sacred and profoundly meaningful fact of life. For me Art and Life are one and the same, as much as Kala is about nature, is also about “Painting”, Kala is the daughter of Willem de Kooning’s Woman paintings, she is the sprit of painting itself, the brutal muse that has been standing behind us all, sex and death rolled into one big beautiful beast.

qi peng: As you are represented by Thomas Robertello Gallery now, what have your experiences with the gallery system been like? What are some of the problems that you have faced with gallery directors and/or non-profit space owners? What are some of your joyous moments that you had with galleries? Are there any future projects/installations that you dream of executing someday? As a New York artist with Chicago-based representation, what has been the response to this particular relationship?

Jason Robert Bell: Thomas has been an ongoing supportive force in my work, he has really struggled to create something special with his gallery, and his belief in my work and his representation has meant a lot to me. He is the only dealer I have ever worked with that I really trust. That is the main issue with dealers, can you trust them, do they respect you and all are they willing to give you a hundred and ten percent. An art dealer needs to be able to sell snow in Alaska; if they can do that then you have someone special.

Besides that most of my experiences with galleries and exhibition experiences have been rather horrible and confusing, Which I think is par for the course with most artists, there is an inverted pyramid in all of the creative fields I have been involved in (art, comics, media, advertising, theater, and art education) there are exceptions, but so many times it is the most unimaginative, the most small minded, short sighted people in charge of situations. I don’t know if the whole world is run by soulless weasels, or just “creative fields”, but the actual talent, the Artist are treated like garbage, as if we are a dime a dozen.

I would love to have a commercial gallery in New York, if for no other reason that more of my friends could attend my exhibits, but it just has not been in the cards, I have exhibited with the Secret Project [Robot] Art Space for the last four years here in Brooklyn, and they (Rachel and Eric) and sweet wonderful people that run a great alterative space. I have also done a few projects with the Brick Theater, which is an important independent performance space in Brooklyn.

I have really enjoyed working with Susan Classen-Sullivan, who gave me a 10-year retrospective at the Hans Weiss Newspace Gallery in Manchester, CT a few years ago. My father was able to come to the opening and I gave an artist talk to about 200 people that night, I had just been able to get him cataract surgery and he was able to see again for the first time in years. That night meant a lot to him, and myself.

I have notebooks filled with ideas for exhibitions, projects, and installations, I would like to do, but such is the nature of being an artist below most people’s radar.

Anything that is too important to me, always finds a ways of coming to fruition, I don’t dream, I make dreams. Currently I am talking with some of my collaborators about adapting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring into a multi-media Action Adventure theater piece with the John Cage Aria as a starting place for the musical arrangement.

qi peng: How do you feel that the current economic recession impacted the contemporary art market and way that it functions in the larger national economy? Do you feel that artists will be pursuing more personal and intimate projects than the overly commercial work, typically geared for the art fairs, during the upcoming years? How do you think that galleries and non-profits will be coping with the dramatic shifts within the political and corporate culture, particularly in America? Do you have any thoughts about the current state of the stock market and its concomitant corruption such as the recent Madoff scandal?

Jason Robert Bell: None of what has happen surprised me, capitalism when it is separated from ethics, morals, foresight, empathy, and the basic social contract is a self-destructive beast. I am sure that Madoff’s actions are way more common than people could imagine, I would hazard to say that the whole economy is a Ponzi scheme is some form or another, aren’t most of us robbing Peter to pay Paul to rob Peter? Too many people act under the precept that “Good Business is Bad Humanity”. They don’t seem to understand that if you screw all the people over, and then you’re not going to get repeat business.

Economics is a system of illusions; an agreement to invest worth into abstractions, in many ways it is a system of “art” as opposed to a “science”. But, just as in any system, if you lose sight of what are the means and what are the ends, you are in trouble. I have always lived as a bohemian, hand to mouth, never have been able to save a dime, it has always been feast or famine for me, so when the “Econopocalypse”, happen it did not really effect me, that much, I actually have continued to sell work, at slightly lower prices, people know they can get a deal right now, so I am happy to give them one.

None of these matters to me, an artist is going make art, no matter what happens to the world, when there is a will there is a way, where there is life, there is hope. The grass always pushes up through the pavement. The dynamics might change, but if as long as people want to have art experiences, there will be art. And there is always someone making money, it just might be different people. Hopefully this will cull some of the herd, and the strong will come out stronger.

qi peng: What is your opinion on juried competitions such as New American Paintings and curated artists registries such as The Drawing Center‘s Viewing Program or White Columns in the development of a young artist’s career? Do you feel that being judged by “officials” or “art referees” help to create a strong reputation for the artist’s work? What elements do you think are necessary to make a particular artwork strong and communicative? With the rise of online curated galleries such as Collegeartonline (CAO) or Ugallery, do you think that those type of galleries are a good stepping stone into the larger art network?

Jason Robert Bell: My personal opinion of most of the institutions you have listed is frankly pretty low, seeing as how I have been rejected by most of them. Since I know that what I do is exceptional, there is an obviously real problem with how they operate.  However, I know artist that have had good experiences going through those programs, and they have lead to other opportunities. That is the rub, whenever I have actually gotten through any official art world membrane it has always lead to something, another exhibit, a sale, a new connection. So it is an important reality that artist have to deal with, if they want to get their work out into the world. But, I am baffled as to how they choose the people they do and why, it always seems to come down to some issue of taste and surfaces readings of work, married with “knowing someone on the inside”. That could just be sour grapes, on my part, but I think not.

For me it came down to why am I wasting my time trying to whore myself to people who just don’t understand what I am doing. I did a whole series of abandoned sculpture pieces called “Trashsures” as an act of frustration with the art exhibition system. I had to stop doing that project, if you are not careful you can really lose your self to all these forces, and turn into a clown. I have had better luck with people finding me through my personal website (, and creating my own projects and events, creating my on system instead of only being a pawn to an external system.

qi peng: What are some of your favorite artists, books, television shows, sports, art magazines, toys, movies, and other cultural artifacts that you wish to share with your fans of your work here? Do you have any recent galleries or exhibitions that you have seen and would to recommend to us? What things in those shows inspired your visual eye and imagination?

Jason Robert Bell: Besides, artist from history, there are very few current living artist that I am that invested in. Two of my good friends, Chris Uphues and Joe Infurnari both live on the same street as me in Brooklyn, I share my work and art with them and they with me, what there doing in their studios means a great deal to me. My close friend Britton Walters who is in Chicago, has done a daily drawing on his website ( for the last 5 years and I go every Wednesday to see the weekly update, he is a genius. Of all the art magazines I have always enjoyed Art in America the most, mainly due to a certain scholarly bent to the articles. With Artforum I always feel like I am reading a “cool hunter manual”, I check out every day, I love old pulp fiction such as Doc Savage and Tarzan; I spend some time everyday reading the Encyclopedia and the OED. I really enjoyed the documentary Man on Wire.

Recent exhibits, Matt Jones at BUIA and Rachel Beach at Like the Spice, both New York that are worth checking out.

When I was last in Chicago, Scott Wolinak had a great exhibit at the Cultural Center. I really enjoy independent theater and whenever my friends Hope Cartelli and Jeff Lewonczyk are doing a performance I am there.

I judge other people’s art, by how much does it inspire me, and does it make me want to get into the studio and work. All my friends are creative people that I respect as artist, so it is in that community I find my inspiration.

qi peng: What is your opinion of art world journalism and art critics such as Jerry Saltz? Do you read periodicals such as ArtForum or ARTnews to get an up to date understanding of what goes on within the art world? Do you have any favorite artistic blogs or websites that you enjoy looking at on a regular basis? Do you feel that smaller, regional art markets like Chicago will have a chance to expand their horizons into becoming essential and vibrant art hot spots just like Los Angeles or New York City during the recession? What do you think is the current state of contemporary art within New York City where you live?

Jason Robert Bell: I have known Jerry for years, he has always treated me with respect, he is a considerate thinker that cares about Art and all of us Artist and wants the best for us. I think we would be better off if there were more Jerry’s out there.

I terms of keeping up with the Art World, I am not that good at it, If I want to know what going on, I go to the Galleries and see the shows first hand, am on a lot of mailing list and if something is happening that sounds interesting I’ll try to see it. Facebook has been really helpful for networking and keeping up with events.

I don’t know what is the alchemy needed to boost Chicago to the level of a New York or a Los Angeles, Chicago is the capital of middle America, and is a world onto itself, I think there are some really wonderful artist, galleries, and museums there and anything is possible. For Art to be a truly important part of a city, it has to be a economic force something that grows and feeds back into the larger city, this is very much the case with Theater in Chicago, but in terms of the Visual Arts it has always been a harder sell. This moves in cycles, currently, I think people like Thomas, Susan Gescheidle, and Scott Speh at Western Exhibitions, are currently working on making Chicago an important art city.

qi peng: Are there any restaurants or hangouts such as bookstores around New York or Chicago or anywhere else that you wish to recommend us? What are the qualities that you enjoy best about the places that you have chosen?

Jason Robert Bell: I spend the majority of my time in Williamsburg and Greenpoint Brooklyn, one of my favorite places is a bizarre Rite Aid Pharmacy in Greenpoint on Manhattan Avenue, which was once a disco roller skating rink, and before that a movie theater, once you get inside it is a giant circular space with a huge mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling, the place is filled with tons of low end consumer goods, kitschy plastic seasonal gifts, and bulk loads of stuff that no one would ever want or need, I love it there.

There are fewer and fewer good used books stores in the city, but 12th Street Books off of University near Union Square is a good place for used Art books, Mercer Street Books has a pretty good selection of old sci-fi paperbacks.

I try to go for a long walk every day, and spend most of that time looking at what people throw away. Some of the most rewarding experiences of my life have entailed finding discarded items on the streets of New York.

qi peng: What are some of your thoughts of the current trends within the contemporary art world such as conceptual art or the new media art where technology and art intersect? Do you feel that there is a certain strength in traditional expressionism within the scene where curators are hunting for the latest cutting-edge work that may diverge from painting on a support?

Jason Robert Bell: I think what passes for “conceptual art” is often a one-liner joke at best; the modes of “conceptual art” have been co-opted into a formal aesthetic, if you can tell me about a work of art and I don’t need to see it to understand it, and then I don’t care about it. Art should always be a first hand visual experience. If I have to read a little card next to a work in order to get it, then that means it is a failure as a work of art and the person that made it is making the world a darker place.

I enjoy technology and always tried to integrate digital output and desktop publishing form in my projects, when and where I could. For me technology is a tool and nothing more, what are you doing with the technology, what are you using it to express beyond itself, the duty of the artist is to transform, so regardless of the media, where is the transformation.  I have never understood people writing off a whole medium, people should be looking for artist that are doing new and interesting things, regardless of the materials they choose to work in. I have seen so many videos and new media pieces that were meaningless beyond the fact that they were “new media” whatever that means. I think as more and more people have access to the technology it will become less and less of an issue. I don’t limit myself; I spend just as much time working on video and animation pieces as I do paintings and sculptures. Most painters I know are employing computers to develop their imagery, which can also become a crutch, and not longer a helpful tool.

qi peng: Would you consider your artwork a form of statement about sociology and the way that humans relate to each other through relationships between each other? How does this fit into the political utopia of “hopefulness” that has arrived with the administration of President Obama? Should art strive to maintain political roots or not? Would you consider your painting a form of historical documentation? Any insights on mankind’s relationship between the present and his past or his future? How are these ideas portrayed within your work?

Jason Robert Bell: Nietzsche said that “The Artist must be against their times, not of them.” Which has always been fine by me. The night that Obama was elected was a monumental moment for the country; it meant a lot to me, I am a sucker for the underdog. But beyond that I think that there will not be much in terms of sweeping change in government, I think he is going to try to do a good job, and it is nice to have a President that is not a moronic dogmatic ideology. Government is a business, and the U.S.A. is a gorgonian knot of beliefs and cognitive dissidence. It is my belief that the Left and the Right have mismatched their social and economic platforms with each other, so we get the snake eating it’s own tail, what would they do without each other?

My work is not about those kinds of politics; I am more invested in the idea of inspiring aware people to activate their own personal imaginative lives. My Art is a dialogue with the future and the past; it is a record of one person’s attempt at the immortality game. The key to Utopia is everyone being the best person they can be, I know that I am being my best, doing what I was meant to do when I am making art so that is what I do, and All I expect from other people is for them to see it and to be blown away with it’s excellence, to turn them on to other ways of thinking and seeing. For good or ill, it is up to them.

qi peng: What are some of your future projects that you will be pursuing soon? Will these new pieces be an extension of the themes and ideas that you are examining now or a different direction instead?

Jason Robert Bell: For the last six months I have been working full time on teaching myself animation, I am working on adapting my Caveman Robot character into an animated feature of some sort. This has been a herculanean task, but it has to be done. I am employing everything I have done as an artist, drawings, painting, sculpture, collage, desktop publishing, video editing, non-camera filmmaking, performance, to make this thing, and when it is done nothing will be the same.

qi peng: Your works on paper have often intersected with installation art such as the “One Authentic Jason Bell Drawing” project. In what way would your artwork be considered a form of institutional critique? What is the postmodern thrust of your artwork examining the nature of art itself? Are there any insights that the viewer can derive about the way the contemporary art market functions today?

Jason Robert Bell: I have always taken pleasure in mocking the forms of consumerism, there area number of projects I have done in that vein. Caveman Robot started off as simply taking discounted action figures painting them silver, slapping on a spotted fur lion cloth and reselling them as “Caveman Robot”. I offer the Invisible Donkey Removal Service and Unicorn Turds for sale on my web site. I feel that it is my prerogative as an artist to play with the consumer world we inhabit. It goes back to the illusion we are all playing. I offer membership in the “Friends of Bell” on my website as we, where people can donate a small sum and get a token work of art and a certificate of friendship from me.

Art at it’s most base functions a high end luxury goods, which is all fine and good, artist need to live, but it can also be something else, it can be about a more personal exchange, about a game of make believe, we agree that this worthless object (serves no function) is valuable and then we exchange it for money, we are sharing a ritual act in which we are giving something meaning beyond the material world, we are giving imagination value.

qi peng: One of your drawings featured Superman. Do you have a fascination with comic books and graphic novels? Which ones would be your personal favorites? In which way do you incorporate what you have seen from the material into your studio practice? How do you think that text should interact with visual images within art?

Jason Robert Bell: I read a lot of comics growing up, and I think that comics are an important form of expression. I don’t really keep up with comics now. I always try to read whatever Alan Moore is doing, because his work is some of the most important art being done in any form. My favorite artist is Jack Kirby; everything after Jack Kirby in comics is a footnote. For me Superman is a surrogate for a Messiah Figure in our culture, I am not the first person to say this, but Superman is the American Christ.

I have self-published a few Caveman Robot comics, which was more about creating more artifacts in that larger underground pop culture project, and to start creating a mythos for the character.

I think Scott McCloud’s work is important and often refer to it when I am thinking about my own projects.

I think text can be a powerful element in visual art, my father was a billboard painter and I grew up in text as image environment. However there is always a limit to how effectual text is in visual art, because of the issue of language, if you can’t read the language then you are not getting the same experience.  The wordless comics of Moebius were profoundly overpowering to me as a young artist. In my heart of hearts I think the best comics should not use words, and tell the story only with images.

qi peng: What are some of your hobbies outside of painting? How does these things relate to your studio practice? Do you find yourself having to enter into the studio out of discipline or inspiration or a mixture of both? What are some of the practical challenges that artists have to face inside or outside their studio time?

Jason Robert Bell: I have always lived in my studio, I have no hobbies, everything I do relates directly to my art. All the films I see, books I read, music I listen to, places I travel to, and people I spend my time with are connected to my work in some form. For me nothing else matters. I have one simply rule, every day I do whatever is needed to continue to make art, and I make art everyday. To be an artist is akin to being a monk, you have to be willing to forsake everything, and sacrifice your whole life for art or why bother? Just drink beer and watch TV, like everybody else, they seem happy.

qi peng: What trends do you see are forthcoming within the contemporary art world? How would place your paintings within the overall context of art history? What is the overall tenor and conceptual drive shown within your artwork? Before you embark on a painting, what factors do you use to determine whether the final work is to be large or small based on scale?

Jason Robert Bell: I think the great pitfall of any artforum is when it is no longer creating culture, but instead playing catch up to it. Trying to mirror what is already happening. People think you can bottle success, just look around at whatever is popular, and repeat it. Which is death to art, I think the biggest issue in contemporary art is what is the purpose of art, is it merely to mimic social trends and kowtow to flavor of the month fashions, or is it to present new and dynamic and dangerous visions.

In terms of my own works context in the world, this used to haunt me, but then I realized that I would not be able to create anything of merit if I thought about art history and my context in it. I follow my bliss; my aim is to explore my imagination to create things that I wish to see created. My mind is filled with images, and I have to bring them out, if not, I don’t I think I would not be able to function as a person. I have always done this and always will. For me the only context I am invested in is my work’s context to itself, I am creating my own myths, my own gods, my own reality, and in the end it does not matter if it is successful or not in the history of art, I did it and I did the best I could and I never compromised my vision, never gave up that struggle, that is what counts. I am creating my own context and will march straight into hell for that heavenly cause.

Scale is one of the greatest tools of visual communication; the artist must be a Gulliver, traveling in scale always in flux, pushing the giant into the dwarf and back again.

qi peng: You are also a writer of various texts. What do you enjoy writing about and how do these paragraphs act as a counterpoint to your self-expression through visual stimuli? Do you feel that a lot of artists cannot articulate their conceptual thrust of their artwork within words? What accounts for the potential difficulty of working with text versus working with visual motifs?

Jason Robert Bell: Words fail, no one can ever really express what is going on inside them to another person completely, with words, I enjoy writing, there is a certain hyperbolic theater in artist statements and interviews like this that is great fun. I think a lot of artists have trouble articulating their thoughts because they fear nailing down their work, people might read their thoughts and be unable to think about the work in any other way. What is that Murphy’s Law maxim? “Better to be quiet and have people think you might be a fool, than open you mouth and prove it.”

I am not afraid of people thinking I am a Fool. It all starts with the Fool, the Fool is the active dynamic principle in culture, most people don’t remember anything anyway, they are so caught up in there own lives that everything else is a ghostly projection at best, I am sure that the only people who are really going to pour over this text line for line if it sees print are myself, a few close friends, and a few more enemies and an ex-girlfriend or two of mine. Since no one is paying attention, we are actually free to say anything. Long Live the Cheerleader Monkey Albrecht Dürer Overdrive Cowboy Freemasonry Freedom Fighters Forever Pinball Footglove!

qi peng: Your formal art education was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as well as Yale University. what was your years of education like? Were there any influential professors and fellow students whose ideas or drive influenced your current expressionist style? Are there any memorable stories from your studio visits or school days?

Jason Robert Bell: I loved my art education, I had a great time in school, some of my dearest friendships where made there.

At the Art Institute, what I got most was exposure to a world class museum and great facilities, it was a big school and there was so much going on all the time, it was a great place to try everything and see what happens. There where some good painting teachers there, Phil Hanson, John Rozelle, Don Southard, Jim Lutes, and Michiko Itatani. The teacher that actually had the great effect on me was John Kimsey who taught literature there. Kimsey reminded me that the artist must harness “the fantastic” or they are not an artist, merely an artisan.

Yale was a very different environment, I had a great time there as well, but the overall culture was more adversarial, I often felt as if my work and my very person was held in contempt.

I had some supportive advisors and critics, there like David Pease, Peter Halley, Sam Messer, Sean Landers, Matvey Levenstein, and Alfred Leslie. But, I also had professors insult my intelligence, my mode of dress, and make comments about my body weight. There was one professor, who ironically made art about race issues that seemed to be really uncomfortable around a larger person, they made a few unwarranted offhand statements about my size. It was very odd. I am not that large, just over six foot, bulky frame, and about 270 pounds, but for some reason my very being unnerved that person.

I know that I am a bit of an oddball, and can sometimes make people uncomfortable, but some of those negative interactions were beyond the pale.

In the end what I got from Yale, was that no one can tell you anything about your work, you have only yourself to answer to and you own standards, goals, and ideals, people can take it or leave it, but you will never please everyone, so better to be a hungry lion than a well feed dog.

qi peng: How was your cooperation with Thomas Robertello Gallery helped the direction of your work? Has gallery representation boosted your artistic career and your ability to pursue more ambitious pieces? How do you feel that the contemporary art world differs in Chicago than in New York City? Do you have any advice for emerging BFA or MFA students who completed their degree recently and are ready to enter into the gallery system formally?

Jason Robert Bell: Having a gallery has meant a lot to me, knowing that there is a set place in the world where my work has a home beyond my studio is helpful in my general thinking. I don’t know if it really has affected my ambitions, I think I would need 10 galleries all over the world to feel that the true scope of my ambitions was fulfilled.

I think the major difference between New York and Chicago, is that because Chicago is a smaller network of artist and spaces it is easier to work your way into exhibiting there, if you went to school there and are willing to stick it out there for a while. I had to leave Chicago in order to show my work there, maybe I’ll have to leave New York in order to get a good show here.

In terms of advice to art students, I’ll say what I always say, if you are worried about not being able to pay your bills, if you are afraid that you will never make it as an artist, if you are not willing to suffer, then don’t bother, go do something else, there are enough artist already. But, if you think you can handle rejection, if you believe that you have what it takes, go for it, and never give up.

As for “entering the gallery system” in my experience people want to have some sort of hand in your work, they want to be the person that discovered you, the people that had the greater vision and took their white gloved hand and plucked you out of the darkness, but at the same time they want you to be “hot” and “up and coming”, people like a winner. So often is the case that artist have to have some sort of cache outside of the art world, but the right cache, some connection to fashion, pop culture, or mass media, something that bridges into the larger world. But in the right snobby way, nothing to sorted or lowbrow, or maybe a little low class, but with beautiful people.

qi peng: What is the nature of your collaborative and installation projects? How have these works elucidated viewers’ understanding of your solo work?

Jason Robert Bell: Everything I do is one giant continuum of ideas and experiences, my life is my art and my art is my life. The theater pieces, experimental films, internet gags, comic books, and conversations I have on the street with a stranger are just as important as any painting or sculpture I have created. Art is not made in a void; it is made in the greater world.

Here is a quote from Robert Heinlein, which I try to live my life by:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

The nature of all my projects is my attempt at living a meaningful life; of making everyday I am above ground a more magical experience for my follow humans and myself. Barnett Newman said, The Sublime is Now! That is the nature of my work.

qi peng: Is there anything else that you wish to share with readers here or fans of your work?

Jason Robert Bell: Never give up, never compromise the important things, the little trivia stuff is for compromise, try to only spend time with your equals or betters, have a zero tolerance for people that don’t believe in you. To live means having regrets, but learn from them and move on. People will come and go in your life, honor and cherish the good times you shared with them, regardless of how it ended.

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 2:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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