THE PROMISED LAND|
Eric Bellis (aka Rico Bell)
‘California is a Garden of Eden
A paradise to live in or see
But, believe it or not
You won’t find it so hot
If you aint got the doh re me’
So sang Woody Guthrie in reference to the plight and subsequent migration to ‘the promised land’ of California by the victims of the great dust storms that swept through the Midwest and Southwest of North America in the 1930s.
California is still ‘The Promised Land’ to many of the migrant farm workers arriving there today but as Woody’s lyric implies, it is still an empty ‘promise’. Lack of employment protection rights or health care, and exposure to poisonous pesticides, are just some of the occupational hazards that await the majority of men and women who come to work in the fields for meagre, and often below subsistence level, wages.
Despite my subsequent knowledge of the above, when I first began this series of paintings I did not do so with the intention of making any overtly political statements. Rather, as with the paintings in my first solo show at this gallery, ‘The Fruits of Labour’, (so long ago now that I’m too embarrassed to recall) I was motivated by the visual juxtaposition of the human form at work within the landscape that, this time, happened to be in the fields of the central coast area of California. The possibilities of creating a series of paintings using these observations as a starting point enabled me to find a connection to my previous work that I had been searching for since leaving the UK some years before. As my observations progressed, however, I began to question the working conditions these people endure and why the workers, in general, wear certain types of clothing such as hooded sweaters and scarves that leave very little of their skin exposed. The first and most obvious reason would be as protection from the hot sun, but why tie a scarf around the face ‘bandit’ style, I wondered. It took very little research to learn that they were attempting to protect themselves from contact with, or inhalation of, the poisonous pesticides and other chemicals that are sprayed on the crops. Proper protective wear is, no doubt, prohibitively expensive for one surviving on minimal wages and it would seem that no laws are enforced, or even exist, to require employers to provide such wear.
My awareness of the above has inevitably had a subconscious effect on the way these paintings have developed but I still maintain that I intend no specific political message with them. I believe there is a visual beauty and harmony to be found in all things and I hope that my representation of these hard working people captures that, but also holds a viewer’s attention long enough to allow further thought to consider these workers’ existence within the landscape of our world.
No doubt the way in which you, the viewer, interpret what you see in this body of work will be affected by your own beliefs, preferences and knowledge. But, rest assured, I would never be happy with a painting or, indeed, deem it complete, until there are ‘questions’ within it that have occurred without my conscious intention and only as part of the process of creating the finished work. I do not have definitive answers to these questions so, however you choose to view the work in this show I hope you’ll find it to be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.
Finally, I would like to note that credit for the title of this show must go to your host and gallery owner, Thomas Masters, whom I would like to thank for not forgetting about me during all the years since my last show here-- and for finally making this show happen.
Eric Bellis "The Promised Land"
April 19th, 2013
Review: Eric Bellis/Thomas Masters Gallery
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The depiction of Mexican farm workers became so connected to left-wing politics in the twentieth century, it is hard to remember that ever since Hesiod, rustic idylls were created for the landed gentry. How pleased the Duc de Berry must have been to contemplate his très riches domains cultivated by happy, hard-working peasants. The politics of the Chicago painters who moved to New Mexico a hundred years ago were less clearly defined. Some of the paintings, permanently displayed in a special gallery at the Art Institute, seem like anthropological studies of Native American life. A current exhibition of paintings of California farm workers by Eric Bellis seems to invite all three perspectives. In text that accompanies the exhibition, the artist expresses some concern for the makeshift facial barriers the workers need to protect themselves from the toxic pesticide in which they are immersed. But he has rendered their scarves as such alluring masks that it is nearly impossible to contemplate anything sinister. And, the quality of light is so delicious, some of the paintings glow like ornamental stained glass windows. In addition to his career as a post-punk, alt-country musician with the Mekons, Bellis is quite a painter—and the variety of effects suggests that he’s more of an explorer than a brand builder. In one painting, his farm worker is so entangled in foliage, it’s as if her glowing human face were just one more fruit of the harvest. But in another, we stand behind a worker relaxing by the side of the road, so we may share the end of a day spent in exhausting labor. He often seems to paint wherever a design is leading him, rather than following a photograph or narrative. The results are usually peaceful and gorgeous, but a ripple of restlessness keeps them from feeling either sentimental or somnolent. Some of these images could be used on the labels of California wine, others would better promote farm worker unions. But whether one sides with labor or management, human evolution has probably left something in the human brain that takes a special delight in scenes of people gathering food in verdant, open landscapes, and makes us happy to be alive. (Chris Miller)
Through April 26 at Thomas Masters Gallery, 245 West North.