Double Phenomenon, Oil on canvas, 106 x 122cm
For CV refer to markcroftonbell.com
Mark Crofton Bell completed his undergraduate studies at OCAD University in 1988 and received his Masters of Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art in London, UK. He has shown extensively across Canada in artist run centres and public galleries including a solo exhibition at The Art Gallery of Ontario. Bell is one of the founding members of the artist collective Painting Disorders. He lives and works in Toronto.
Now Magazine Must See Shows, Double Phenomenon:Mark Crofton Bell
Mark Crofton Bell: Black Suns and Yellow Seas
Essay by: Shannon Anderson
Initiated by news stories and the images that accompany them, Mark Crofton Bell’s paintings repeatedly feature otherwise ordinary environments in curious states of disruption. Often, his works contain the kind of scenery found in traditional landscape paintings, but the views have been coopted by the visual evidence of a series of unusual and disconnected events. An otherwise tranquil hillside, for instance, is partially obscured by a central smoke cloud; or a luminous blue ocean is interrupted by a colourful collection of balloons, or a dramatic sunset is overshadowed by a dense constellation of swarming birds. The original events behind Bell’s source imagery are necessarily pulled up into the paintings, but they exist as suggestive remnants that linger around them, creating subtly ominous undertones.
The source photographs for Bell’s paintings are generally taken at moments when the incidents still contain elements of unexplained phenomena. Floating Balloons, for example, originated in a news report about a Brazilian priest who had undergone a fundraising mission and was attempting to break a world record for longest flight by helium balloons. After he went missing, the first evidence that surfaced in this “Icarus-like” tale, as Bell describes it, was a collection of bright balloons discovered floating on a luminous body of water, leading journalists to the conclusion that the priest had not survived. But the picture was taken days before the body of the priest was found. Floating Balloons documents a transitional moment in the event, an instant where the seascape has been altered by this bouquet of colour – a misleadingly cheery sight if you don’t know the tale behind it.
These seem to be the common threads that link Bell’s choice of images: moments documented when an incident is still in a state of unexplained discovery, and quite often, stories caught up in themes of death or survival. In viewing these paintings, whose imagery is now divorced from their original journalistic function, the viewer must largely speculate about the circumstances that have led to these disrupted scenes. Far from a faithful translation, Bell’s images take liberties with their original source material. Starting with a highly smooth gessoed surface, he builds his image in thin layers of oils, a process that remains highly visible in its final form. These washes of colour, in many ways, build a new image that illuminates the ephemerality of these photographic moments and our unreliable capacity to process and understand their details.
Accumulated viewing of Bell’s work leaves a trail of clues that begin to form a wider picture of the unrest lurking within. Yellow Sea depicts an otherwise bucolic scene broken by a central cloud of smoke. The painting’s title offers a clue to those familiar with the political unease in this area of the world. Based on a photograph taken just after an explosion occurred in North Korea, this image is emblematic of the tensions and secrecy surrounding the country’s nuclear capacity. It also operates as a metaphor for the instantaneous ability for peaceful conditions to shift into upheaval. Despite the ephemerality of the cloud, its mere appearance marks a permanent shift in the environment, registering an increased threat to survival.
The title painting of this exhibition, Double Phenomenon, is rooted in animal, rather than human, occurrence. The swirling black mass depicts starlings in murmuration, although its loose, painterly approach might also suggest a swarm of bees or mosquitos, or even a gathering tornado, at first glance. While the synchronized movement that guides starling flight is in itself rather enigmatic and mysterious, Bell culled the photo in reference to a sudden mass death of hundreds of starlings when they crashed to the ground in Arkansas last New Year’s Eve. The event was later linked to the loud boom of fireworks disrupting the bird’s complex flight patterns, but the deaths initially prompted all manner of apocalyptic pronouncements. And although this scene cannot possibly document the moment prior to the crash, the starlings are seen in a somewhat unusual circular formation as opposed to the irregular forms more commonly witnessed. It’s as though something has interrupted their complex dance and thrown them into a jumbled, confused mass. In Denmark, people call moments of mass starling constellations a “black sun,” a term that vividly encapsulates the way Bell’s birds seem to obscure and drain the light from the scene.
As with so many news items, it is not so much the language used to describe an event that lingers, but the images selected to portray it. While media reports swiftly evolve and adapt in response to incoming information, their accompanying pictures are unchanging objects that carry a different sort of resonance. Sometimes, they grip us in a way that carries on long after the details of the event soften and move into history. Bell’s paintings allude to this cache of news photographs that each of us carries, stories we absorb through the lenses of others as they document the shifting terrain of world events.