A tired single mum cradles her infant and a remote control, their faces lit by a desktop screen, while London at night is laid out beneath the window. A city worker performs his prayers on a rooftop, the City of London with its tall buildings and cranes before him. A venerable London church sits quietly in the moonlight, kept company by a sleeping homeless man and a security guard glimpsed through a nearby office window…
These are some of the scenes from When the City is Built, a collection of paintings by artist Julian Bell that gives a snapshot of one summer’s day in modern London. But don’t expect any of these to be based on reality – they’re all figments of the imagination.
“Fictional characters pass through,” explains Bell. “An elderly foreigner arrives and seeks, disoriented, for his granddaughter. She meanwhile nannies the infant son of a North London architect. This architect’s older son is a City intern. The story is as you wish: it has no text beyond this.”
Described by Bell as “a hymn to the great 21st-century city which is London”, each painting, with terse one-word titles (Flightpath, Bridge, etc), stands alone as a work of art, together they veer from intimate experiences to the public sphere: a rooftop bar, business meetings, a supermarket checkout, a passport queue.
“There are different perspectives: someone seeing the city from the outside, someone involved in the building of it, and someone experiencing it as a situation she’s stuck inside,” says Bell of the works, which will go on show at London’s Menier Gallery in October.
It is clear that the real subject is London and that the upcoming show reflects the artist’s love of the city and his curiosity in people. “I’m not always painting literal, specific pockets of London,” he adds. “Often I’ve reshuffled the evidence a bit to reach an essence of a certain London experience – be it a building site, a checkout, a man running down the street, a rainy day. Here and there I’ve added a skyscraper if a composition seemed to need it. After all, these are paintings and not a record; they’re a set of thoughts about what the metropolis is like.”
Bell has been working on his new body of work since 2017. Drawings at various London locations have been followed by free imaginative re-thinking in his Sussex studio. Scenarios arise and then he looks for models to help enact them. There is an element of staging to achieve his narratives. “There has been no end of people coming into the studio to be sketched, and I’ve gone through so much tracing paper.” In London, his on-location preparatory drawings have taken him into the City, along the river and into a South London park. “The drug dealers there got used to me!” he laughs.
What does he hope to show through this exhibition? “I hope it says that painting is a good way of thinking about contemporary life and the textures of experience. What things feel like these days. I want to show the maelstrom of the contemporary world: there are divine possibilities, but more of the time you are in the middle of the shit.”
When The City Is Built is a solo exhibition of paintings by Julian Bell. On show at the Menier Gallery, 51 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU from 9 October until 19 October 2019. Discover more about Julian Bell at [jbell.co.uk](http://www.jbell.co.uk/
Fridge, oil on canvas 51x72cm © Julian Bell
Leave, oil on canvas 51x92cm © Julian Bell
St Clements, oil on canvas 51x75cm © Julian Bell
Checkout, oil on canvas 51x77cm © Julian Bell
Central, oil on canvas 51x102cm © Julian Bell
FaceTime, oil on canvas 51 x 67cm © Julian Bell