LESLIE BELL's immersive, colorful collage installations hover in the threshold between abstraction and representation. The organic, rhizomatic lines evoke explosions, sea life and planetary movement, but formal decisions are often influenced more by materiality than imagery. Leslie received her BFA from Alberta College of Art & Design in 2002 and completed her MFA in Painting and Drawing at Concordia University, Montreal in 2009. In 2008, she attended the Cosmic Ray Research residency at The Banff Centre, and has been the recipient of numerous project grants from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (2008, 2010 and 2011). Leslie's stop-motion animations of water-based paint over back-lit glass have been screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival (2013) in Australia and the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival (2014) in Toronto, among others. She has exhibited widely throughout Canada, including solo shows at Skew Gallery (2011) and SQ Commons (2013), both in Calgary, where Leslie lives and works.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Are your collage installations pure abstractions? What visually influences you in the creation of these works?
These collages, composed of over a hundred paper and paint-on-Mylar
cutouts, were developed from two different directions. The paper shapes
are made by tracing projected photographs of trees, plants and fireworks
explosions as contour line drawings and then cutting them out by hand
with an X-acto knife. This process is a holdover from older works. In
undergrad, I was primarily a landscape painter who worked from image
references that I projected and traced.
When I switched to abstraction, I incorporated these contour drawings
into the layering of the paintings and later into stand-alone drawings
on paper. Over the years I have shot hundreds of photographs on hiking
excursions in British Columbia, on holidays in Europe and of my own
houseplants. These photos are now my source materials for the white
paper collage pieces that are a direct development from this early
The paint-on-Mylar shapes fall under the category of pure abstraction. The material conditions, rather than any outside images, dictate the formal language, but those abstractions sometimes lead me to think about sea-life, mucous and cellular organisms, which in turn influences the work. I work on the floor, pouring out puddles of FW ink and acrylic paint and allowing them to blend and mix as they dry. Saturated puddles of ink on Mylar dry in a particularly interesting incremental way, leaving thick lines and edges and creating smaller shapes within the form. I started out making jellyfish-like shapes, and I embraced the way folds in the plastic or uneven floors would allow "tumors" or new "limbs" to sprout overnight. With jellyfish in mind, I considered giving the shapes "tentacles" and then began to incorporate gestural lines of paint, mirroring the action of a swinging wrist and arm into the shapes as outcroppings. From there, the shapes made me think of the mind maps I draw in my sketchbook composed of circled text and lines, as well as strings of sap or snot, so I began adding intricacy to the forms by making multiple puddles of paint or "nebulae" connected by swooping and drooping swaths of lines made with large flat brushes. The frosted Mylar I use comes on four-feet wide rolls, so I would make larger shapes by stretching the "snot strings" lengthwise. At a certain point I became fascinated by the texture that can be created by splashing and dripping concentrated ink into the puddles with an eyedropper—it looked like leopard spots to me—and I went through a whole period of making "leopard amoebas."
OPP: What first led to the shift from painting to installation?
LB: I first started the Cosmic Collage in 2008; my goal was to solve a problem in my painting practice. At the time, I was really into the work of Julie Mehrutu, Matthew Ritchie, Dil Hildbrand and Melanie Authier, and I was struggling to emulate their work. I sought a level of layered complexity that just wasn't happening in my paintings. It occurred to me that pre-planning the compositions through collage might achieve the level of intricacy and layering I was looking for.
My work took on an unpredicted trajectory. The collage itself became a satisfying, exciting, fully-realized body of work. New material explorations changed the aesthetic, and I began to consider installation and space. But I always kept my original goal in mind. Over the next year or two, I poked away at some paintings, working from the photo documentation I took of the first collage-installations at The Banff Centre and Galleries Les-Territoires. Thinking of my favourite painters, I switched to oil paint for these studies and began from some simple questions: canvas or birch panel? Paint loosely or photo-realistically? Masking tape hard-edges: yes or no? I considered these initial studies to be failures up until SIM 1 when something "clicked" aesthetically.
OPP: Could you talk about the intersection of dimensionality and flatness in Simulation Series (2014)?
LB: The paintings from Simulation Series
are essentially photo-representational paintings of abstract source
material. I place two-dimensional forms into three-dimensional systems,
photograph them and then paint the resulting abstraction with the same
representational techniques that I developed when I painted from life
and landscape. I love the idea that the viewer can recognize and
appreciate the tropes of traditional, representational painting,
including cast light and shadow, colour value and focal depth, while the
subject is unrecognizable: I’m literally simulating abstraction.
my earlier abstract paintings, any sense of flatness or space was an
unintentional byproduct of trying to develop an abstract aesthetic
through a combination painting and drawing while being unsure of my
direction. I was trying to achieve a virtual space through a mental
process without any real reference points. But with the Simulation Series, which references Baudrillard's notions of hyperreality, I embraced the ambiguity between abstraction and representation, between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional.
The initial source materials are flat shapes that occupy real space, casting interesting shadows that I exaggerate in the paintings. The bends in the paper in the collage and the source lighting create highlights and shadows that add value and ambient light to the original local colours. The photos I take of the three-dimensional installations distort the forms through cropping and a combination of sharp focus and blur that can be emphasized through a combination of hard-edge and gestural blending techniques.
OPP: Are your Cosmic Wall installations planned or improvised? What are some of the practical logistics of hanging your installations?
LB: The installations are loosely planned. I reuse the shapes with each new installation. After finding out where the work will be shown next, I get a general idea of what kind of superstructure I'm going to go for based on the conditions of the space (on the wall or hanging from the roof, horizontal swoop or water-fall, one main shape or small clusters, etc.) With this in mind, I make as many new shapes as time allows with the specific space in mind. I always start out with a general idea of the composition, but the installation grows incrementally and decisions are made organically in the process. I'm never very picky about exact placement of every piece. It is an abstract collage after all, and I personally enjoy accidental formations and surprises that happen through the process.
Through the different installations, the individual pieces have suffered some wear and tear, and I often need to patch some chipped bits up with paint or retire them altogether. All the individual bits have a maximum size of 4 x 8 feet because everything is stored in flat, cardboard portfolio packs—with the exception of some 20 foot ribbons that get rolled up for storage in a box. I've learned through experience that the paint shapes need at least a week of drying time before being packed away, and I need to separate them with newspaper or they will stick together.
OPP: Do you use assistants?
LB: At first, I did all the work from creation to installation myself, but as early as the Les-Territoires
installation I began to delegate tasks and rely on installation
assistants. I invited my friends to help me X-acto knife out my paper
shapes to save time. The more complicated wood shapes were made by a
professional printing company using computer laser cutting. My husband
would hang my wood bits for me because I'm not strong enough to lift
them. He's a commercial electrician and figured out the framework for
hanging the heavier wood pieces, which are anchored to walls with metal
rods painted white or hung from the roof with aircraft cable, using
supplies he pilfered from construction sites. The collage itself is hung
with clear push pins and fishing wire.
With the Glenbow Museum and Art Gallery of Calgary installations, I had a team of professional installation technicians helping me. I spread out all the shapes on the floor and handed them pieces one at a time while they were up on ladders. I told them where and how high to hang things, and they problem-solved to make it happen. The installation process is generally a fun and stress-free collaboration with the installation technicians, and I'm open to their suggestions in terms of installation and lighting.
OPP: In general, are your animations pure stop-motion or do you ever employ digital editing techniques?
I try to achieve as much as possible in-camera with the hand-painted
stop-motion techniques, but there are some digital effects added in
post-production using AfterEffects. But with every digital effect added,
the original source material becomes slightly degraded. I am
compulsively obsessed with maintaining as much high-definition detail as
possible. (I abhor seeing these films projected in SD!) So I make sure
the lighting is perfect before filming and for the most part, I use the
original paint colours and light levels. I crop and blur with the camera
set-up instead of using computer scale change and blur filters.
When I first started Chromafilm, I was still learning animation, and I had some strategic struggles trying to achieve pre-set goals based on combining existing aesthetics of paint animation with my own pure abstract painting technique. I was thinking about animation as a way to create a living painting, emulating the experience of painting as the mind works through the possibilities and permutations of abstract composition. But I mostly wanted to make moving versions of the paint-on-Mylar shapes from the Cosmic Collage.
OPP: What about speed and mirroring in Chromafilm (2011)?
LB: I was never really satisfied with the level of frenetic activity of Chromafilm.
Throughout the process, I did as much as possible to slow the paint
down, but paint dropped into water moves at a certain speed and the
camera takes a certain amount of time to capture each individual
picture. The paint-on-glass painting technique is achieved with Golden
fluid acrylics mixed with water and some glycerin (which never dries)
poured over a glass window on a light table that is tipped slightly by a
margin of millimeters. I wanted the final film to be HD, so I needed to
capture the largest possible image files. Each individual frame took
about two seconds to capture. Those two seconds felt so long as I
watched the colour explode on the table into the water.
I learned a lot while tinkering with AfterEffects. I discovered the mirroring effect, which anchors the movement centrally and alleviates a previous sea sickness that came from watching the fast-paced movement flow rapidly from side to side. I learned to colour reverse by switching the curves, which turned the white background to black and altered the original stained glass-like color palate to an ultraviolet one. This aesthetic turned the recognizable paint on a light table into a cosmic and psychedelic field.
OPP: Your animation Apollo
(2011) pulses back and forth in imagined scale. One second I see outer
space; the next I'm looking at carbonation bubbles rising in a glass. As
I watched the 16-minute loop, I fluctuated back and forth between
wondering how certain effects were achieved and surrendering to the
visual pleasure. What’s different in the process of this piece?
LB: One day while shooting Chromafilm,
I took a break to go for a walk and when I came back, the paint had
dried somewhat and mixed into a thick gooey puddle with some air-bubbles
in it. On the computer screen, this shot looked like a starry sky. This
moment was the impetus for Random Peter, Aquarius and Apollo. I shot Random Peter
that same day. I used a brush to scrape away paint, and then shot image
sequences as the paint slowly spilled in and filled the mark. In real
time, the paint was moving at a slug’s pace because the paint mixture
had less water in it than what I used for Chromafilm (speed problem solved).
The sequences I used for both Aquarius and Apollo
were made by using a sponge off frame to soak up paint from under the
bottom of the frame and squeeze it out over the top. When you see an
explosion of dots in the frame, that was achieved by whipping a goop of
paint from a paintbrush from out of frame. This process took more than
half a year, and I ended up with 48 minutes of raw footage.
There is a particular effect that is more predominant in Apollo where the bubbles seem to streak in chains or lines. I copied the clip multiple times and repeatedly offset it by a single frame. When it looks like molecules slowly popping in and out, that’s actually a set of clips multiplied and offset about 40 times. I personally consider it both the success and bane of Aquarius and Apollo that the animation is so seamless that it is not readily apparent that it’s origin is hand-painted. Typically stop-motion animation is appreciated largely for the amount of work that goes into it. Because these films seem to be digitally created, that aspect goes unnoticed.
OPP: From a purely process point of view, do you prefer painting, installation or animation more?
LB: Overall, my practice is a combination of intuitive and analytical approaches. These varied processes fall somewhere along a spectrum between active/reflective spontaneity and compulsive methodology.
Painting is challenging and makes me think at every step. It is an energetic process where I am reflecting and responding to each and every brush stoke. Discoveries are made, boundaries pushed and surprises happen. When I feel like I've mastered a particular technique and I'm sure of how a painting will turn out, I move on to a new series of paintings. I don't like going through the motion of painting when I feel I already have the answers. To me, painting is a thought process as opposed to a technical one. Installing my collage work is downright fun. All the production work is already done. I literally wave my hands around, and, like magic—the magic is that other people do all the labour—a massive art piece comes to fruition.
I like animation because, I get so involved in the rhythmic methodical making and the rabbit-hole of editing that I can spend hours at it without stopping. By the time I was working on "Aquarius", capturing the stop-motion paint reached a point where I repeat the same action hundreds of times without the need for much reflective thinking or interpretation. The same could be said for hand-drawn cel-animation; although it leads to new forms, it involves an iterative process where I am basically tracing the same shape over and over again with only a small set of slight changes. These methodical actions put me in a meditative state where all thought or stress leaves my head. Video editing also satisfies my masochistic need to focus on very small details and set-up overly complicated processes where I create an unnecessarily labour-intensive procedure that could not be explained in simple terms.
I feel like you just asked me to pick my favourite child!
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.