Expressionist Renderings: The Prints of Alistair Bell an ode to a master printmaker

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Expressionist Renderings: The Prints of Alistair Bell
At the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art until December 20

An introductory display of hand tools sets the tone for this exhibition of prints and drawings by Alistair Bell, on at North Vancouver’s Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art. Humble and well-worn, the burins or dry-point needles for incising lines into copper plates, the knives and gouges for cutting images into wood, the old serving spoons adapted to pressing the paper against the inked block, all speak to the modesty, probity, and dedication of “the most distinguished printmaker working in British Columbia for a period of over sixty years”.

These words of tribute come from the exhibition brochure, written by guest curator Ian Thom. Thom has brought a lovely order and coherence to the array of Bell’s works in the Artists for Kids teaching collection. Thom pays particular attention to the relationship between Bell’s preparatory drawings and the multiples based on them. Lively images in conté, charcoal, ink, and watercolour are mounted beside corresponding woodcuts, dry-points, and etchings, demonstrating how superb draftsmanship, a keen eye, and a fondness for a few subjects translated into a body of distinctive prints.

In Bell’s work, trawlers and tugboats, plants and animals, dockyards and freighters suggest a powerful feeling for the everyday, delivered in a forthright and expressive style. Mind you, the everyday is sometimes inflected with the exotic: there are depictions here of creatures such as elephants, giraffes, flamingos, and toucans, which Bell sketched in zoos around the world. A sad ennui—is it mine or the artist’s?—informs these works. Although the animal subjects are usually isolated on the page with no background detail, it’s clear they’re not living in the wild.

Bell, who was born in England in 1913, lived and worked in Vancouver from 1929 until his death in 1997. He attended art schools in Vancouver and London, England, was strongly influenced by German expressionism, and produced his first print in 1935. For years he worked out of a basement studio in his small Dundarave home, supporting his family as a draftsman in a structural-steel plant. In 1967, after his prints drew international attention, he turned to art-making full-time.

It’s interesting to see how varied is the relationship between his drawings and prints. The 1959 charcoal and chalk sketch of a vulture, titled Tall Bird, is faint and unemphatic compared with the colour woodcut of the same title, produced in 1961. This print is distinguished by its thick and angular black outlines and strong, flat passages of nonnaturalistic colour. As Thom notes, it is one of Bell’s most powerful and compelling images. On the other hand, the 1987 watercolour drawing Crimson Cineraria has far more energy and presence than an abstracted 1990 woodcut version, Pink Flowers.

The 1988 colour woodcut Northern Deep Sea Tug is accompanied here by two studies made in 1987, one highly detailed in thin, scratchy conté lines, and the other darkly and expressionistically drawn in ink and watercolour washes of rusty red, olive green, and blackish-blue, again with thick black outlines. The first sketch, which calls up Bell’s background in industrial drafting, isolates the tugboat on the page; the second places it in a landscape of muddy foreground, dark water, and rainy coastal mountains. It is this second drawing that finds a strong, clear translation in the wonderfully characterful woodcut.

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