You may have noticed, decorating the pages of the December issue of The Walrus, a series of little drawings called “Schematic Diagrams for Proposed Objects.” These colourful chunks were chipped away from the alternate reality that Canadian artist Marc Bell has been building for the past decade and more: a populous, overwhelming place where “everything has feet,” even the least detail demands annotation (“brown sock means I’m working in Quebec”), Philip Guston‘s self-caricature comes into inexplicable conflict with ex-Ontario premier Ernie Eves, and imaginary corporations peddle such necessities as gravy, tarps, stone, and adhesives. It’s a place I’ve written about before, and which Bell’s new book, Hot Potatoe, exhaustively maps out, often aided by cheeky, Nabokovian text pieces. The artist was gracious enough to exchange a few emails with me about his intricately detailed universe.
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Hot Potatoe features drawings, mixed media constructions, comics, watercolour, and other work. What sort of thought processes do each of these forms require? For instance, how do you compose a comics page versus a drawing?
A common thread through all of my work seems to be a stacking of information and imagery, and me trying to arrange it all somehow. But there are specific differences: the mixed media pieces require a lot less planning than how I would go about drawing comics, for example. When I am creating mixed media things, I like to start out with a big mess (scraps, doodles, random bits of paper) and refine it over time. There is a lot of layering and do-overs. Perfect for someone like me who has difficulty with decisions. The downside is that it is sometimes hard to cover up the bits and pieces that I like, but which may not contribute to the overall composition of the thing.
The other side of the coin is comics, which take more planning. I draw those in pencil first. That’s when most of the redoing happens, all the erasing and do-overs…Fans of cartoons often enjoy a pristine comics page that looks effortless. Mine never seem to escape a certain kind of tortured look, however. I push very hard with my pencil and it looks like I might be trying to dig through to the other side of the paper and escape.
The watercoloured drawings are created in much the same way I create a page of comics. But these days I am using nicer paper.
I don’t work on as much collaboration as I used to, but I think collaboration has really helped me try to use some of the same tactics in creating my own work. Often I am consciously trying to interfere with my own natural way of working in an attempt to create a compelling image — sort of imitating what happens when one draws with another person, trying to get at an unexpected result. Throwing a wrench in the works. Also, my own work has that “piled on” look that some collaborative work has. Figures will have multiple faces/views, a cubist look or something like that.
How does the approach differ when you’re compiling and editing a book like Nog A Dod, which is more about the work of your peers, as opposed to when you’re putting together something like Hot Potatoe, which is all you?
Well, I had more distance from the material used to put together Nog A Dod (since it was by other people), and that was very helpful in order to edit it. Nog A Dod was pretty exciting to put together because the material had been produced originally in small-time, self-published booklets, so I was happy to bring it to a bigger audience. When compiling Hot Potatoe, I became a little tired of the material because it was all “me, me, me,” but I had to remind myself that most of it had only appeared as art on the wall, and most people probably had not seen it before. My general tendency is still to cram a lot of stuff in, and certainly both Nog A Dod and Hot Potatoe are pretty full.
I wonder what you have to say about what attracts you to (1) prog rock, and (2) E.C. Segar. What kind of play, if any, do those influences have in your work?
(1) I loved prog as a teenager—it was my way out of heavy metal (I thought it was smarter), but I don’t know if it was a good way out. I don’t have as much patience for it now, but I have been trying to listen to Van Der Graaf Generator to see what that is all about. My love of prog has been replaced with things like Can and The Fall, which you could certainly link to prog in some ways. Looking at my work now, however, you might be able to see my prog roots in there.
(2) Segar is the opposite of prog, much more groovy and looser. As important as it was to stop listening to the whole five parts of Supper’s Ready by Genesis every day (as great as all of them are), it was also important to look at Segar and things like Betty Boop to see where somebody like [Robert] Crumb came from. Segar is the perfect cartoonist. Vaudeville comics at their finest.
Do you think of the figures in your drawings and constructions as characters in the same way that you do the characters in your comics? Like, is the “Balsam Adhesives” guy someone who could interact on the page with a Petey or a Paul or a Pootie, or is he just a satisfying collection of compositional elements?
I don’t think “Balsam Adhesives” guy could interact with a Petey or a Paul or a Pootie unless he was simplified a bit. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would take some work to distill him down to his more bare essentials. In “There Is No Escape!”, the story starring Petey, there are illusions and representations of some of the “non-comics” stuff, but it was a challenge to distill some of these things down into comics-land. While my comics are very busy, they do need to have a bit of simplicity to make them “move”. A good example of this would be Basil Wolverton‘s comics versus his crazy, detailed illustrations. You would expect his comics to look as detailed as those stand-alone drawings, but they don’t, and if they did, they wouldn’t “move” like they do.
The paper cup with the “Lime Ricky” logo is conspicuous among your constructions for being, unlike the ones advertising Gravy World or Canadian Aztec, from a restaurant chain that actually exists. Any fond memories of Lime Rickey’s restaurants?
You know, I don’t recall this restaurant. Did the staff dress in green? I bet they did! I was mainly familiar with the soda fountain drink of the same name on the menu of Mel’s Tea Room in Sackville, NB.
I’m curious about your connections to your hometown’s artistic history. Are there any London, Ontario artists whose work you feel a kinship with? I’m wondering in particular about Greg Curnoe’s collages.
I think it was Jason Mclean, another London-born artist, who showed me those Curnoe collages with bus transfers and things. It led us both to using those in our work as a reference point to our hometown. We would glue them to the outside of letters we mailed to each other. Curnoe and co. were very stubborn about being from London and working in London, a real regionalist viewpoint. In much the same way that The Hairy Who and other Chicago artists rejected what was going on in New York at the time they started, Curnoe and co. didn’t feel they should have to go to the big city (Toronto) to get respect. It is a different world now, with this internet and “globalization” or whatever you want to call it, and I don’t know if that point of view could really truly exist anymore. You would have to work really hard to maintain that kind of bubble.
You have lived and worked all across Canada, but a specific sense of place, even if it’s only alluded to, is still present in much of your work. How important is where you’re living to what you’re working on?
I might have done all right as a stubborn London artist, not sure, but I found I had to get out and be stubborn all over the place (ho ho). A good chunk (almost all) of Hot Potatoe was created in Vancouver. I was there for eight years and it was a good place to get a lot done. I appreciate that you get that “sense of place” from the work: I am not sure how it is communicated, but I am happy it is. I don’t know if you have seen Curnoe’s map of North America with the U.S. missing (Canada is joined to Mexico), but I cannot claim the same sort of differences with the United States in my work, as most of my successes are tied to the U.S. My stuff does not have the “message” it seems to take to be understood that well in Canada. I think Canada is very overwhelmed by academia in art, to a point where [the art] will probably change a bit or possibly already has [because of that pressure]. I like to work in opposition to SOMETHING, so it’s okay if this academic “art that is good for you” sticks around a bit longer.