If you think art is too hoity-toity or highbrow for you, then check out the artwork of Mike Bell, a self-described “lowbrow” artist.
Bell’s works, which will be shown at The Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton College in Atlantic City throughout the summer, are a juxtaposition of nostalgic pop icons and famous A.C. scenes combined with modern-day influences. Throughout all though, Bell’s playful personality shines through.
“As a child I would go to the Steel Pier on weekends,” says Bell, who was born in Atlantic City. “I was always fascinated with the ‘carnivalesque’ sideshow of it — it was larger than life and had a bit of mystery to me. So I do a lot with that and I like to add elements of fantasy too.”
His style can be considered illusionistic or “cartoony” — with the lines being blurred at times. He paints anything from portraits of 20th century celebrity icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra to painted surfboards with images of Mighty Mouse to classic Atlantic City symbols such as Miss America and the diving horse.
Perhaps his most curious pieces, as well as his most whimsical, are his palm-sized matchbook art. These three-dimensional pieces are often seen with depictions of famous movie characters such as Catwoman, Boba Fett, the Bride of Frankenstein and Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“I was searching to create art from something that could be thrown away, so I started working with beer coasters, which was interesting,” Bell says. “But I was sitting at a bar and someone asked the bartender for matches. It intrigued me. The paper inside was decent quality, so I started ripping out the matches to make room for drawings. Then I thought maybe I could use the matchsticks for arms and hands in the pieces. I played around and discovered different hand symbols. My first one was of John Lennon with a peace symbol.”
He’s also done “arms” and “hands” holding martini glasses or, in the case of a Monroe matchbox, studded with diamonds. Interestingly, Bell’s matchbox art can be seen in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not attractions around the world.
As for the celebrity aspects in his paintings, Bell is inspired by Atlantic City’s early days.
“We had such incredible performers back then — the largest names in the business — Sinatra, Dean Martin. Marilyn Monroe was even the Grand Marshal of the Miss America Parade in 1952,” Bell says.
At his upcoming exhibit, there will be an entire wall dedicated to his black and white paintings of the people and groups who helped make A.C. what it was, such as The Beatles, the Rat Pack and, of course, Monroe.
Also on display will be one Bell’s painted surfboards with a graphic interpretation of Lucy the Elephant.
“I’ve been in this area my whole life so I’ve been around surfing,” Bell says. “It’s just another flat object to paint on and they look great with art on them.”
“The Art of Mike Bell,” which includes originals, prints on stretched canvas and open-edition giclees, will be on display until Sept. 28 at The Noyes Arts Garage, located inside the Wave Garage at the corner of Fairmount and Mississippi avenues. There is a free and open- to-the-public artist’s reception 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, July 11. Guests will have the opportunity to meet Bell while viewing his recent works, which will be available for purchase during the run of the exhibition. This event coincides with Second Friday, where live music and other special activities will take place.