AS A writer and an artist, Zara Bell creates work that is deeply personal and introspective.
Her latest body of work, “Enthusiasm Makes the Difference,” is on display now at Starland Café and explores relationships of all stripes, whether interpersonal or interdimensional. She’s inspired by long-published books—the images in the collages come from the book “Sexercises: Isometric and Isotonic” by Edward O’Relly, and the show’s title is borrowed from Norman Vincent Peale’s 1967 book.
Bell holds two BFAS, one from the University of New Mexico and one from SCAD, and is pursuing her MFA in painting from SCAD.
We talked with Bell last week.
1. Tell me about your background.
I grew up around artists, and my dad [Larry Bell] is an artist. His friends are some of the most important minimalist artists. Donald Judd, John Chamberlain—he wasn’t a minimalist, but he made things like my dad. I figured out partway through to go through this art, this MFA, this academic maze to get to the place where I started.
In 2012, the state of California was honoring museum exhibitions in all the galleries and the southern California artists. My dad and his friends really started that. There’s a film about it, The Cool School. My dad is he coolest. He’s like the image of cool, and I’ve never felt cool. If I act as if I can pretend, or I watch the way my sister has engaged with being comfortable being seen, being comfortable as the center of attention.
He’s so wonderful. Nobody doesn’t like Larry Bell, and it’s pretty hard not to like his work. He’s not political. I have a good sense of what his politics are, but he doesn’t talk about it.
2. Do you feel like your work is political?
It’s kind of our lot now, as women. I just don’t know what a woman is. Do you know? Because it feels like we’re trying to constantly figure it out. It seems like there’s this idea of what the man is, and that makes more sense, but what is the woman? We’re trying too hard.
I’ve been reading “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler. I thought about gender a lot, and I think there was always this idea o if I’m going to go into art ... it’s literally a patriarchy in my house. I can’t talk to my dad about what I’m think I’m doing when I’m making work. It’s too personal. It’s political. I don’t want it to be, but it is because it’s about my body and about relationships. Not just relationships between a man and a woman, but the space contrasting the binaries. It’s about composing the words that are found objects, about navigating the binaries.
3. You also have a degree in writing. How does your love of writing tie into the way you make art?
Reading is an act of the left brain. Writing is an act of the left brain. We’ve learned in this way. According to Dr. Leonard Shlain, “The Alphabet Vs The Goddess,” the development of our frontal cortex and the binary system and our ability or predilection to read is a thing that takes time. It’s linear activity rather than to respond to images and worship the gods. This is when the invention of the alphabet needed to be in order to keep track of agriculture.
At a time when there was a lot of conflict, it’s a big change of consciousness. There’s this sexuality, this whole idea of “don’t touch yourself” and the shame of the body is based on something else. What do you know that hasn’t been told to you? That’s so amazing to me now, that shift that there’s more than two genders, more than one ideal body, all the ideals. We look at the printed page, and the machine.
4. Why did you stop writing?
When I started to realize how much of myself I was exposing. I felt really vulnerable. I write personal stuff, and that’s always holistically been my way of processing. I have never been good at comebacks when I need them. I’ve been in relationships with men where I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I would write it down and they’d read it. Little by little, it chipped away at my desire to put it all out there. That’s a rape. The way they saw it is, “If this is the way you feel, then you’re a liar.” And maybe I am. What am I doing when I’m writing? I’m telling a fiction to make it be the way I want it to be, about my memories or the way things happened. I can’t seem to write anything that is not personal.
I am what you allow me to do to me. I am these things, I’m made of them. You can also reject them, but you have to be aware. I feel like my work is about relationships and even if I move away from figure, it’s still about the relationships of parts. I think it echoes our own experience of others, trying to connect.
5. Tell me about “Enthusiasm Makes the Difference,” the book after which you named your exhibition.
I think there’s a part of our unconscious that is educated in the story once it’s written, because we’re writing it all the time. The body is a story. I find all my good books at Goodwill. I love seeing the things somebody underlines. This book I found right before we hung the show. I had been doing the same thing. The author was Trump’s minister when he was growing up. He’s one of those televangelist types, making a lot of money by allegedly helping people. There’s a few interesting parts in here, one of which is the idea of acting “as if.” It has some really good advice—it means something very different to me now.