Richard Bell: Positivity
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, until October 14.

THIS survey of Richard Bell’s work in the past 15 years requires a rapid-fire engagement. It proves, had there been any doubt, that Bell – a political activist who came to art quite late – took to it like a duck to water.

On an intellectual level, the works are a fascinating vortex of double and triple meanings. Bell appropriates other artists – Imants Tillers, Emily Kngwarreye, Roy Lichtenstein – all the while castigating artists, such as Tillers, who have appropriated Aboriginal artwork on the back of its commercial success.

He criticises the commodification of Aboriginal art, yet entered and won the 2003 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, three years ago with Scientia E Metaphysica (Bell’s Theorem), a painting overwritten with the slogan “Aboriginal Art: It’s a White Thing”. His tactic in moving galleries in 2002 – from Fireworks Gallery, which markets mainly Aboriginal art, to Bellas Milani Gallery – was at least partly driven by his desire to show with a mainstream art gallery.

Bell finds all of these ironies delicious and his political activism has been fully integrated into his art. The most striking aspect of this exhibition is how far the self-taught Bell has travelled in 15 years.

It includes only one new work, a video titled Uz vs. Them. Bell’s first excursion into the moving image, it sets him up in a boxing match spoof with grunting protagonist, attendant blonde babes and one-liners delivered like punches.

Though rich in personality, his work can be patchy, but it has undeniable power. There is a room full of paintings influenced by Lichtenstein, op and pop art, in which he stars in his own comic strip. These are far from slick; they contain tacky, tasteless text and dissonant elements. In Trickie Dickie (2005), he includes a roll of dishonour, listing artists who have appropriated indigenous imagery.

Pigeonholed (2002) is witty, playing on the nursery rhyme, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, turning it into “Sold Yer Failure Butcher Baker”, then “Troublemaker”, with a mirror reflecting the viewer.

His notorious “White girls can’t hump” T-shirt is included, as is his appropriation of an early Tillers appropriation of a Hans Heysen painting.

Bell’s tour de force, the four-panelled Worth Exploring?, includes text in the form of a statutory declaration that takes the terra nullius argument to an idiosyncratic conclusion: “to deny justice to Aboriginal people disqualifies Settler Australians from the Human Race”. Bookended by his statutory declaration and a “certificate of authenticity” are two paintings, one warning against looking for profundity in this work.

Bell’s is an informed intellect: his work resonates with multiple aesthetic references, political exploration of art history and sharp analysis of the art world, both Aboriginal and European. He constantly pulls the ground from under the viewer: irritating but engaging, witty, impossible to ignore.