Hero: The Paintings of Robert Bissell

‘Animals are good for thinking’ Claude Lévi-Strauss

Review by Grady Harp

First and foremost, Robert Bissell is a very fine contemporary painter, a fact that may go unobserved due to the immediate emotional impact of his majestic paintings of animals in magical, at times surreal, yet always warmly heartwarming stories in paint. Yet the word ‘fine’ here applies to his technical gifts – the way he handles paint, the intuitive correctness of his compositional concepts, the ever-engaging of the viewer’s imagination of tracing that fine line between praise of the animal kingdom and anthropomorphism. Some may glance at the cover of this new, beautifully designed and published monograph and sense that it is about illustration, about a book for children – and yes, it is that, if ‘children’ applies to the childlike wonder in each of us hopefully not completely bruised by the contemporary realities of the world. But it is much more.

Opening with a Preface from Bissell in which he eloquently shares the connection between his happenstance experience with a coyote in the wild, a sharing of isolated unencumbered encounters that forced him to appreciate the sameness of all living things. He also hails the importance of American mythologist Joseph Campbell on his work, the theme of this book being derived from Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. And Bissell adds, ‘This book presents my animal paintings over the past five years or so as stories that fit into a larger narration: our own journey as human beings, the callings we have, the quests we undertake, difficulties we share, helping hands that appear out of nowhere (it seems), and finally the elations and conclusions we all have in common.’

There is a fine biographical introduction written by Carl Little who follows Bissell’s journey from his birth in England, the traumas and accomplishments of his early years, and his eventual migration to and settling in the Pacific Coast of the US. It is that kind of biography that finds the meaningful moments in an artist’s life that brings us into Bissell’s mindset of today. Then the volume opens with the extraordinarily fine paintings of Robert Bissell, paintings that some may at first view as simplistic illustrations meant for decoration, but with continuous growing into these luminous masterworks the ideas and philosophies and, in the end, the elegant talent of the artist emerges.

The paintings are divided into ten Campbellesque categories: Genesis/Birth, Vision/The Calling, Journey/Setting Out, Crossing/The Threshold, Test/Te Trial, Initiation/Receiving Advice, Oracle/The Helper, Apotheosis/Divine Knowledge, Return/Embrace, and Elixir/Blessing. Filling these pages are the wondrous larger than life animals of Bissell’s creation – animals singly and with butterflies, animals in flocks, animals in majestically beautiful landscape paintings, and animals in encounters with shadows of holy men. In order to understand and appreciate what Bissell has been and continues to create can only be grasped by adding this book to your Fine Art library. This book is a bonafide treasure for the eye and the mind and the soul. Highly Recommended on every level.

Grady Harp, May 2013

ISBN: 9780764964565

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