Art in the age of the ‘dragonworld’: J. Bowyer Bell’s unconventional paintings. July, 2009.

Looking over the paintings of J. Bowyer Bell, a veteran painter who never actively pursued recognition through the art gallery system, one is tempted to let interpretation rest at the level of the painting itself, its material, gestural and formal aspects. On the basis of an appreciation of these aspects of his work, Bell appears to be a late abstract expressionist painter programmatically practicing a recidivist style of painting in the postmodern era. But then a problem emerges, Bell’s paintings are about something, usually instances of guerrilla warfare, war crimes, terrorism and bombings. One notes that in works like Spanish Air Raid and again in Bomba Italia, the facture of the abstract paint seems to “refer” to bomb blasts, and also stand for confusion, betrayal, deception and the difficulties of real war in real life. Sometimes the paint simply signifies blood, as in South Tower, or Gaza, or the Bridge at Mostar, but elsewhere the paint also signifies smoke, race, as in Jim Crow, and even oblivion, or the amnesia that closes over all such events in time. Faced with such factural complexity, one is forced to seek out another way to read the paintings. What, then, is going on in J. Bowyer Bell’s paintings? I hope to tentatively answer this question in this essay.

Bell End of Empire 94

End of Empire (1994).

First of all, it has to be noted that late in his career Bell began to write art criticism. Some of his criticism indicates that he had been rethinking abstract expressionism so that it could carry in it a degree of referentiality about the geopolitical world. In some of his criticism, Bell simply loves paint, but he always demands difficulty. He spells out his preferences forcefully in a review of the painter Herbert Brown, stating that Brown’s art “arose in a time (the 1960s) that should have demanded more than Soup Cans” and that art then should have “presaged the era of terror, of dirty war, gunmen in the streets, and political ideas as unpopular now as then”. Rather than, as Pop artists did, “display the idealized America of Cold War omnipotence,” Brown showed “a dirty world, far darker than the neat cartoons that went Whamm-Blamm,” “a world where the Whamm is real, and sex and life is dangerous.” Indeed, Bell seems to grope toward a coherent aesthetic, which he termed “hard art,” “not no art but intense, compulsive images—lasting longer than the divine Fifteen Minutes.”
It only makes sense that some of this “dirty world,” “hard art” aesthetic would come out in Bell’s own art. And in works like Solic DOD, contrasting a propagandistic comic-book headline with a confused mire of news clippings, the white washing of truth nearby, and in Jim Crow, where African Americans are segregated into a sepia-tone old photograph while America flows as a white trail of paint emanating from a postage stamp of the Jefferson Memorial (undoubtedly slyly joking on Jefferson’s fathering of African Americans as well), there is a complexity of irony and ruefulness that, while it appears Rauschenbergian, is imbued with an entirely different tone. Indeed, in cases where paint is laid on thick to signify the ultimate oblivion of events, such as in The Dublin Bombs, March 1st 1972, the “what was it all about?” covering of paint adds a plaintive tone to so-called expressionistic paint, immersing the work in another train of thought.
How does one explain the difficulty of Bell’s painting, then? In fact, the answer lies in the artist’s mind, and in his life. Though Bell painted regularly almost every night for years and years, he made his living as an academic and a think thank consultant. His area of expertise was terrorism, back in the 1970s he wrote The Secret Army, still a definitive study on the Irish troubles. Later on, he became a consultant to the leaders of numerous governments on terrorism. So, while he spent a lot of time in meetings with world leaders, he also spent, as he himself notes, “the major part of my grownup life associating with gunmen, terrorists and active revolutionaries in some of the least savory parts of the globe” (Cheating). Over the years, Bell’s insights lead him to say some real-world things that are still hard for many to swallow. He argued that “if you want an open society, you have to put up with the chaos,” or notably argued, in A Time of Terror, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s patriot.”
While it is difficult to trace the development of Bell’s thought, it appears that the events of 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, bringing about what Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history,” greatly agitated Bell’s mind and imagination. It was during this period that Bell laid out what may well be his most provocative theory, the “dragonworld” thesis. With this theory, Bell explained why, after the end of the Cold War, peace did not come, rather 100 unconventional wars broke out, with the U.S. becoming involved in one way or another in 93 of them. He called these small wars waged by terrorists and insurgents “dragonwars”. These he defined as low-intensity conflicts or rebellions, made more prickly by the fact that those fighting them are not interested in real power but only in “impossible causes and absolute convictions” (Dragonwars, p. 5). Though these wars rarely bring about important change, they have become “the violent muzak of the new world order.” (Dragonwars, p. 5). The most pungent part of Bell’s thesis is that these wars are waged by insurgents who create their own ecosystems, or dragonworlds, that exist in terrains “not found on orthodox maps” but only as a “perceptual creation” in the minds of rebels, “where victory is won in the mind and death comes when the dream dies” (Dragonwars, p. 63). While “a galaxy of belief,” a dragonworld is also a “world filled with monsters,” a “hidden world” filled with a “lethal mix of families and cliques, sects, factions, movements, parties, institutionalized conspiracies, and ethnic struggles” (Dragonwars, p. 63). Most importantly, a dragonworld also creates a “genial ecosystem” for those involved, protecting those who take up the cause, wherever they may be, and letting them live their everyday lives “on call” until wired to serve a mission. Finally, in one of his most provocative points, Bell argues that as soon as the dragonworld matures to the point where it must participate in civil or conventional war, the dragonworld itself vanishes, its irrational usefulness in sustaining unconventional resistance spent.
Bell’s dragonworld thesis not only revitalized his own writing, during the early 1990s, but may well have added a new edge to his painting. While at present I have no evidence that Bell made this connection explicitly, Michel Foucault provides a comparable idea concerning the type of space in which Bell began to paint. Foucault calls such a space a heterotopia, “an in-between space, a space of contradiction and contestation, a space that has the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, mirror or reflect” (Juffer, 2006, p. 290). Foucault’s theory extended to a variety of heterotopias, including a heterotopia of deviation, where “those whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed” (Juffer, 2006, p. 291). While Foucault was talking about prisons, descriptions of Bell’s studio life, a Collyer’s mansion of newspapers and canvases, with paintings hidden in closets and locked rooms in a sprawling upper West Side apartment, suggests the idea of a self-imposed painterly enclave as well, in which an alternative vision germinated in the dust, a true heterotopia.

Bell Nile Source 1996

Nile Source (1996).
So, Bell’s work in this exhibit does not emerge from the market or trends in the art world, but from a heterotopiac dragonworld created by the fusion of his ideas about life and art during a period of intellectual foment in the late 1980s and 1990s. This places Bell’s work on an entirely different ground than most market-oriented art. In order to support this claim, one might also look to Freud’s idea of “projection,” that is, that one projects oneself into one’s interpretation of others. When one looks back to his dragonworld thesis, structural aspects of his theory echo with pointed reference in his art. Bell stated that dragonworlds are solely perceptual, his art seems to have a reality that rests in his perception of it as art alone as well. Its pretty certain that Bell’s painting does not sit pretty on any “orthodox map” of isms or movements in American art over the last fifty years, and the fact that he never sought to exhibit his work at all indicates that, here too, victory was won in his mind, not in the art world. While sometimes “genial” in that they include possible inside jokes and other sly references to events only an expert in the field would fully appreciate, his art is also “filled with monsters,” brooding upon the slaughter of recent world history. Also, while Bell remained “on call” as a terrorist expert, he also worked away in the “hidden world” of his studio and by the end seemed content with a “victory…promised by history” after his death.
This would explain, then, why some of Bell’s paintings are very hard indeed, difficult to interpret, deceptive, obtuse. In his book, Cheating & Deception, Bell writes of various techniques that might be used to misdirect a viewer’s attention, and under that cover perform a trick. “Dazzling” is one such technique, it consists of giving the viewer much more information than he or she needs, for the purpose of misleading him. In the book, Bell gives an example of “dazzling” in a New Yorker type cartoon of a man standing in front of a large cardboard box with “This Side Up” arrows pointing every which way, making it impossible for the man to tell how to handle it with care. It did occur to me that such an image must have resonated in a mind which was also responsible for collaging cardboard box elements as well as stamps onto small paintings, as Bell regularly does. It strikes me that some of Bell’s paintings, like Duce’s Army, Flight from Kuwait, and License to Kill Savak, involve a certain amount of “dazzling” in the way they convey their meaning. One can’t tell if they are serious, or serious jokes, plaintive or acerbic, memorial or amnesiac—Bell probably liked it this way.
Also, it may well be that when Bell decided to include a three-dimensional collage elements in his painting, a feistier side of his double-self was awakened. Thus, License to Kill, with its dangerous-looking shard of glass, cuts deeply against the ironies involved in U.S. support of the Shah of Iran’s SAVAK secret service, a long time ago. Flight from Kuwait represents U.S. transport of troops into Kuwait as if it was taking place on a little, magical flying carpet, skipping blithely over a sign that screams “exit.” Bell was perhaps especially agitated by the mail-bombs sent out by the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, in the early 1990s. Perhaps Bell felt that Kaczynski’s one-man campaign of terrorism was a perfect example of the ultimate stage to which a terrorist dragonworld can go, in terms of becoming lodged in the mind of a single individual violently opposed to mainstream life. The fact that Kaczynski mailed his bombs also may have fed into Bell’s preexisting and obvious interest in postage stamps, collaged into several of his paintings. In most cases, an old-fashioned postage stamp seems to signify the littleness, the stuffiness, the out-of-touchness of mainstream political theory. For years, Bell had critiqued American policy toward terrorists, especially its tendency to simply defame terrorists as “awful and inexplicable” (Dragonwars, p. 63) (not that much more sophisticated than the “madmen” thesis of the popular press), as opposed to trying to understand how terrorists tick. Bell remarks of current U.S. policy, fixated on the idea of the liberalization of the world through conventional war, that the only remarkable fact about U.S. policy is that “so much unconventional experience was transformed into such orthodox doctrine” (Dragonwars, p. 295). Thus, every time you see a postage stamp in Bell’s paintings, he may he whispering such disdain into his art. And then his attraction to cardboard could be said to signify transience, the ever-shifting terrain of both events and memories of them, especially when emblazoned with blunt, blind directions.
And in his Unabomber and Bomb paintings Bell takes collaging so far as to actually simulate, with a bit of wire and two AA batteries (implicitly showing everyone how easy it is to do; echoing too remarks he made at how impromptu bombings emerged in the IRA, how all it took was a “nod” to turn a fantasy into a plan), a bomb. While I was writing this essay an MIT student was arrested at Logan Airport in Boston for wearing and LED clip and batteries into the airport: nothing more than what Bell affixed to his art years ago. The presence of such effects not only adds a figuratively explosive aspect to the facture of the nearby painting, but suggests that Bell was already exploring the dragonworld aspect of art practice as well, which would involve not being able to tell art from something life-threatening—a common occurrence since 9/11. But in this age where fields are merging, and science and art, formerly “two cultures”, converge, Bell’s work should not be seen as an idle avocation by a man busy doing other things, but as an example of an interdisciplinary trifecta, an expert in political science whose knowledge offers a rare opportunity to transform ‘political art’ (so often done by artists who know as little about real events as the general public) into something genuinely informed, with a real capacity to crossover from art into life and influence life once again.

Robert Mahoney is an art writer living in Brooklyn, New York.


Bell, J. Bowyer & Whaley, B. (1991), Cheating and Deception. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Bell, J. Bowyer. (1994). Herbert Brown: review.

Bell, J. Bowyer. (1998) Review: Suzanne McClelland, Reviews, October 15, 1998

Bell, J. Bowyer. (1999). Dragonwars: Armed Struggle and the Conventions of Modern War. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Juffer, J. (2006). Why we like to lose: on being a Cubs fan in the heterotopia of Wrigley Field. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 105, 290-305.