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Carlisle Bell’s lush paintings at Grizzly Grizzly nod to modernism with a contemporary twist

Our reviewer Kate Brock says Carlisle Bell's paintings in "Memory Be Green" showcase "a deft use of material from modernist painting within a practice of impressive range." Brock appreciates the artist's "intentional awkwardness" in "warbling lines, bloopy thick mounds, smearing" as an anti-hubris that deflates big historical paintings. A painter's painter, check out "Memory Be Green", now until March 26 at Grizzly Grizzly.

A darkly colorful painting shows a studio of a painter with a window on the left, an easel on the table in the middle, a venus flytrap plant on a box top and highlighted in a burst of light color is a fly, minutely depicted in the midst of brushy almost-chaos.
“The Fly” by Carlisle Bell, Oil on Canvas with Spray Paint. Image courtesy of Grizzly Grizzly

The treat of looking at Carlisle Bell’s big paintings in Grizzly Grizzly’s narrow gallery is that you are surrounded by paint — paint reveled in, scumbled across, scraped, bulging, or thin and aqueous. “Memory Be Green” is a show of six paintings made between 2021-2023. Iowa born and Philadelphia based, Bell’s first solo show in Philly showcases a deft use of material from modernist painting within a practice of impressive range. Sometimes he quotes directly—there are echoes of Manet, Matisse, Giacometti, El Greco—but always through repetition that initiates novel understanding.

Where these macho guys could become boggy to revisit, Bell animates his art historical focus with a sense of humor and the inclusion of the at-hand: a fly (the star of the show), a ring pop, a billowing dress, a house plant. All of these are rendered with a wild, saturated palette that explores mark-making with abandon. As compressed as some areas of the paintings become, Bell keeps his colors crisp (rich black, violets, sapphire).

In one passage he’ll pull lush, like the lavender cream and seafoam eruption in the sky of “The Offering,” but throttle back with broad flatness in other areas. This back-and-forth between painterly language and abstract space repeats at different levels across the show. The sparser compositions, like “Ring Pop”—where a vibrating purple and gold gem is revealed at the center of a thick, pink setting—feel like object-oriented meditations, or conceptual exercises. Whereas “The Baptism” and “The Fly” share a sense of representational space—a recognizable studio, or landscape—even though Bell obfuscates it with abstract strokes and shapes.

Both paintings share multiple sources, including Manet’s “Young Lady with a Parrot.” The 1866 painting was controversial when it was made, both for its erotic sub-texts and its stark composition– a young woman wears a sculptural pink gown, with a large parrot on her left, the pair embedded in gray. Bell’s compiled images feel closest to an active sorting and recollection of memory, wherein painting enacts a living witness to its many practitioners, floating between dream and object, diffusing around purple edges.

The responsiveness and experiential drive of Bell’s work is worth an in person visit. You can feel his thought process being played out in real time. A stroke here, the pulling of a squeegee, the pushing back of space through thick putty—all felt in front of these big, uncanny paintings. This animation of paint as a moving material connects Bell to the longer arc of his modernist references, combining an understanding of paint as viscous substance, as abstract color, and as form.

A colorful painting, mostly abstract, suggests a roiling stream, with pink waterfalls and perhaps a canoe in the water, with a peculiar dark shape in the foreground seeming to emit one single large drop of water into the stream below.
“The Baptism” by Carlisle Bell, Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of Grizzly Grizzly.

I’m holding the word verdant in relation to Bell’s show not just because the exhibition title suggests a repeated green-ing of memory that takes place through repetition and remembering, but also because of the forest of approaches Bell has generated. Verdant suggests being a little green, inexperienced, or clumsy—a quality I want to celebrate in Bell’s painting. His intentional awkwardness in warbling lines, bloopy thick mounds, smearing, undoes the pretension of big, historical painting and invites more honesty. There’s a youthful aggression to his hand that is not about destruction as much as it is a pushing up from the ground of the image in clambering layers.

Memory Be Green: Carlisle Bell, at Grizzly Grizzly, February 3-March 26, 2023