It was wonderful to see Temma Bell’s most recent show at the Bowery Gallery (May 24- June 18, 2016). Like most of the shows at the Bowery Gallery the work takes time to see. It is not about instant gratification. The process of unravelling, or deciphering the work, takes hours. The light changes. When seen in natural light, the works become more luminous. The effervescent greens buffer against the ultramarine and silvery deep foreground tones. Relationships between paintings (and within paintings) start to become readable as the mystery hints at revelation for those with patience and devotion.
Temma lives in upstate New York on a farm. She has four daughters and clearly leads a full, busy, and healthy life. Indeed, the self-portrait on the downtown wall is a testament to her strong spirit.
The four portraits of her daughters read as genre scenes, vignettes into a day in the life on the farm, where sense of place permeates the atmosphere.All formatted the same size, they came across like a quadtych, a powerful kind of presentation. The confidence of Temma’s scumbly and varied paint application is a marvel at close range and the strength of the compositions, the drawing, the space, the juxtapositions of still life and far vista are delightful. The thin paint indicates an ease of execution and yet there is a sense of some battle in the realization of these tableaux. The distinct sense of each sitter is lovely. The portraits are remarkably particular. The sense of relationship between the person portrayed and the painter (between the daughter and the mother) is complex and deeply felt.
Each person in the group portrait is clearly identified by her gesture, her way of standing.
It seemed at first a bit surreal to not see their faces and yet in time I accept the element of anonymity. The color is beautiful and the lush strokes in the negative spaces, the succinct detail of the clothing, the solidity of form, the convincing sense of how each person stands, and the sophisticated rhythm of their stances create a dynamic journey. Presence, their particular presence, transcends identifying factors. The painting does bring to mind an early painting by Leland Bell, a 1965 group of figures playing croquet. Other times, I am reminded of Paula Modersohn-Becker.
The decisiveness of the painted shapes, especially in the landscape paintings, bring to mind her mother’s work, the paintings of Louisa Matthiasdottir. And yet, Temma’s work is distinctly her own: gentle, personal, and poetic. The plasticity/formal acumen in the landscapes seems to come naturally. They are totally void of self-consciousness. There is a sense of painting as part of life, a robust and noble kind of everydayness. These paintings inspire a kind of faith in the personal worlds we each live-in, a real-time acceptance, a stoic heroism in being here now (and painting).