Michael Bell: Yeeros & Civilisation

July 1, 2003

It hardly seems fair that after twenty years of unceasing creativity, the name “Michael Bell” is largely identified with a single motif – a comic face with staring eyes, clenched teeth and three-day growth, AKA. the Sandman. The face became famous when it was picked up by 2JJJ as a logo for Steve Abbott’s deadpan comic creation of the same name. It has since appeared on T-shirts, stickers and posters, carving a niche for itself in Australian popular culture.

The motif bears a family resemblance to Charles Schultz’s Peanuts – one thinks of Charlie Brown exclaiming “Good Grief!” in moments of exasperation. Yet the Sandman’s true spiritual father is Boofhead, the newspaper cartoon character of the 50s-60s, created by R.B.Clark, and adopted by artist, Peter Kingston. The young Michael Bell was an admirer of the Pop-inspired works of Kingston and Martin Sharp, and was inspired by the Ocker Funk exhibition held at the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery in 1977. I also saw that show as a schoolboy, and remember being seduced by the wit and fantasy of artists such as Ken Searle and Frank Littler. The work seemed genuinely odd and fresh, making the works in the permanent collection seem rather stodgy in comparison.

As a mature artist, Bell has tried to maintain that sense of wonder in his own work, making paintings and assemblages that will strike a welcoming chord in any teenage imagination. While his bold, illustrative style may look superficial at first glance, Bell’s works are usually tempered by a vein of satire or social comment. His Sandman, for instance, is a Boofhead for our times – the bodgie hair-do replaced by a shaven head, the protruding lower lip pulled tight in a grimace. The original Boofhead had his heyday in a more uncomplicated era: Australia in the early 1960s when Sir Robert Menzies was still in the Lodge, there was no decimal currency or metric measurements. The near future would usher in the Vietnam demonstrations, the green bans and the triumph of avant-garde art over the gum tree school, but for the time being it was a stable, dependable world in which even the greatest Boofheads could drift happily along.

By contrast, Bell’s latter-day Boofhead has to cope with the anxieties generated by globalisation, GST, crises in health, welfare and education, urban paranoia, crime, terrorism, and the seemingly endless reign of John Winston Howard. No wonder he looks perpetually traumatized.

The ‘Sandman’ motif is a talisman for our times, a comic mask of anxiety with universal applications, but it has grown out of a focus on the closest, most familiar aspects of everyday life. At heart Bell is a regionalist, whose work responds to his observations of the world around him, Newcastle’s street life and popular culture. He has found a surreal poetry in the Yeeros – that inverted cone of meat on a stick, found in Greek or Lebanese takeaways. He has taken a commercial icon such as the Muffler Man, and made him into a deity for a car-worshipping culture. In his best-known Sandman print, The Lighthouse (1997), the familiar tower on Nobby’s Head pinions the grimacing face in its beams. Unused to the glare of publicity, the Sandman seem caught like an escaping prisoner in the guards’ searchlights.

In a milieu in which so many contemporary Australian artists are trying to project an aura of high seriousness or high chic, Michael Bell is a misfit. As a humourist and an urban folk artist, he remains marginal to the institutional avant-garde and indifferent to the hermetic preoccupations of the art crowd. In this, he has an obvious precursor in Philip Guston, who turned his back on Abstract Expressionism, to paint ungainly cartoon-like figures. No-one took Guston seriously at first, and this is the common fate of artists who forge their own path regardless of fashion and convention. It has happened to a certain extent with Bell, who is less melancholy than Guston, but no less disrespectful of art in its most sanctimonious guises. There is an element of Australian larrikinism in Bell’s work, a dislike of pompousness and pretension. He does not set out to shock his audience, but to amuse them and make them think.

He has embraced the comic book style for its ease and immediacy of communication, creating a succession of characters that make each of his constructed paintings seem like one panel drawn from a story-board, or a single frame from an animated film. His cast of goats and monkeys, smiling carrots, crowds of men, women and dogs, all seem to going about their daily business in a state of hyperactivity. His drawing can be crude, and the humour very broad, but all Bell’s images have a kind of subliminal mythic dimension. With his most elaborate works, such as the two big Devil paintings of 2002, one thinks immediately of the visions of Hell conjured up by artists such as Bosch, Breugel or Luca Signorelli. In the early Renaissance these grotesque, swarming scenes were intended to convey alarming impressions of the after-life to an illiterate audience. Despite their arcane underpinnings, such works addressed the masses in the most vivid and direct fashion. As such, they might be compared with the mass-circulation comics and cartoons that command such a wide audience today.

This is the kind of impact to which Michael Bell aspires – an art of striking and memorable images that stirs and teases viewers out of their habitual complacency. Bell is a folk artist in the way he draws highly-familiar motifs from the suburban environment, but a more radical creator in the way he transforms this material into surreal and mythical tableaux. Like many of the best-known Australian modernists, he might ultimately be seen as an icon-maker. Take off Ned Kelly’s helmet and there grins the face of the Sandman.

Catalogue essay for Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, July 2003

Michael Bell: A Survey
Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, NSW,
9 August –5 October 2003