Hard Words

a film about Bell‘s solo show 
London, September 2008 



Hard Words, 2008

Hosted by Four Square Fine Arts
The Air Gallery
9th – 13th September 2008

Through this series of work Bell is attempting to stretch the limitations of written language as a means of intimate and impassioned expression. Words such as ‘mother’, ‘daughter’, ‘son’, ‘wife’, ‘home’ and ‘family’ are offered up via a kind of serendipitous, scalpel-led, culling of chosen literary tomes from which the selected words are redolent of the mind-sets and prejudices of the time. In works such as ‘Love (Pistol)’ and ‘Love (Bag)’ Bell used templates of euphemistic objects to lend impact to the text. In other pieces, such as ‘Happy’, a map is used in place of text, suggesting that for some definitions language falls short.

Download a PDF of the Hard Words Catalogue click here (3.8 MB)

For further information please visit www.foursquarearts.co.uk

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Hard Words

The occasion of the exhibition Hard Words forms an important marker in Ellen Bell‘s personal and artistic journey.

In the last few years Bell moved from Oxford to Truro in Cornwall and started teaching; in part to financially support new directions she wanted to pursue with her work. A turning point for this change of direction was her site-specific solo exhibition at The City Gallery in Leicester in 2007 titled Speaking Soul. The project involved Bell working with local groups of Muslim women to create content around notions of language and self-expression.

Working for the first time on larger scale commissions for Speaking Soul, and collaborating with the local women acted as a catalyst for Bell. There is a new confidence of expression in the pieces she has made for Hard Words. And, with pieces like Love (Pistol) – the silhouette of a handgun – she is giving us imagery far removed from the early domestic works she first became known for. But her subject matter is still centered in the domestic; the worlds of women and their relationships to other women, the crafting and symbolism of clothes, identity and sense of place.

Hard Words is both a literal and figurative title. Bell has made a study of the development of language and its teaching and 'Hard Words' was a name used for the first printed dictionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries that attempted to explain difficult, foreign or technical words:

“The entire stock of English words in the fifteenth century was a mere fraction of what it is today, and it sometimes became necessary to turn to other languages to provide descriptions of things for which no English word existed. The interest in Renaissance learning naturally made the classical languages, particularly Latin, a favorite source. For those unacquainted with Latin, dictionaries were needed to translate into the English vernacular a multitude of 'hard words' based on Latin.”

These dictionaries – as found objects – form the basis for many of her new works; cut about, re-formed and re-presented back to the viewer. Sometimes the date of the books Bell chooses has significance. But more often she is interested in the different interpretations of words that the dictionaries provide, as words fall in and out of popular usage.

But a more literal reading of the title Hard Words becomes evident when you look at these new works en masse. Bell is struggling to find a way to say words that she (and we) find difficult to say. And although text has always been important to her work, the search for answers is especially strong in Hard Words, where dictionaries are her palette to find meanings in words, deeds, life. The surfaces of the works extend this metaphor; cut-out words run in waves across the page, unraveling and lifting away from the surface. Become unglued. It all leaves you wanting to examine the detail and to fathom the meanings.

Words have always been an important part of Bell‘s work, as have found objects and ephemera. The use of antique maps in this exhibition is striking and intriguing. Bell only works with maps of places that she has a relationship with, however tenuous. She lived in Cambridge, which features in the piece Aground with its disconcerting stripe of red cotton bleeding down the page and its tiny, metaphorical origami boat. And Bell visited Italy – Rome and Spoleto – last year for the first time. In Twin-Bedded Room small, wrapped paper boxes form two mattresses, made from an antique Baedeker map of Rome. It is redolent of EM Forster novels; buttoned down English reticence pitted against a background of Italian passion and heat.

On first glance Bell‘s is a body of work that can appear to consist of beautifully crafted work – simply lovely to look at. Yet Bell‘s work is all about experimenting with definitions of roles and expectations, especially those of women. This may have worked against her, pigeonholed her work. This was especially the case when she was showing her work in craft-based galleries. But these themes - thus the work – have a wider-ranging significance and appeal. In a calmer art space you can spend much longer looking at and contemplating her work. Her work is layer-deep and repays time spent with it. And as you spend time with this work you start to sense a bubbling, seething cauldron of feelings, a search for expression that has always been there but was less evident. You start to recognise that with Bell‘s work, all is not as it first seems.

The silhouettes that Bell uses to ‘contain’ her words always have significance. In fact they are as important as the contents. And the way she manipulates her contents / papers – beautifully cut, folded and glued gives rhythm to surfaces. They let Bell undulate her words and intent. The piece that presents the most dramatic silhouette here is the one that features on the publicity for this exhibition: Love (Pistol). Paired with her re-working of Jane Eyre: Love (Bag) the two contrast dramatically – one so ostensibly masculine, about pushing anger and power outwards and the other essentially feminine, contained and meditative. Bell is putting forth two sides of love here, but doesn’t tell us that one is better than the other. For her, the power of these works, images, expressions of feeling are equal, just different.

The ages of women that Bell returns to again and again as subject matter in her work are well represented in this exhibition. From Mother and Wife to Family and Daughter. In Mother we read the sounds of a child learning to talk and feel that child trying to get the attention of the mother, talking but unable to forge a connection. Wife, formed from Sheridan’s dictionary of 1866 pulls out words like ‘strumpet’ and ‘cheesecake’ with real humour and bawdiness; yet it is delivered quietly and unassumingly as we have come to expect from Bell. It is all reminiscent of those women authors of the 19th century who used the written word to shout for them.

Coming to the work in Hard Words unknowingly leads to all sorts of suppositions and readings, which Bell is very happy to have happen. As a somewhat private artist she positively encourages her audience to interpret and re-interpret her work for themselves. As she says: “They are all stories but ones that can be read in many different ways.”

So, with Hard Words we are given a palette for contemplation – for finding in Bell‘s work our own meanings, and parallels with our own histories and experiences. It is as though her stories and ours weave together, to bring meaning to the work, a conversation of many layers.

June 2008 © Jane Audas

Sidney Landau's Dictionaries: The Art & Craft of Lexicography
2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2001, page 47

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