Robert Bissell | Down the Rabbit Hole

Robert Bissell - COMMUNION, OIL, 44 X 57.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

In the opening chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Alice tumbles down a long, long rabbit hole into a magical realm where the Cheshire Cat, Mock Turtle, and March Hare hold court. Likewise, when viewers enter kingdoms created by artist Robert Bissell, they often feel as if they, too, have somehow slipped into a fantastical visual universe where animals rule. In Bissell’s wonderland, rabbits gather in conversational bouquets sharing juicy bits of gossip, bears perch on cliffs like sentinels guarding island domains, and armies of giant bumblebees attack bright yellow sunflowers.

At first glance, paintings by the Northern California artist seem ripped from the pages of a children’s book. But on closer inspection, Bissell’s canvases reveal layers of meaning beyond their whimsy, much like Carroll’s classic children’s story.

As an art critic for The New York Times once commented about Bissell’s multilayered visions, “His work disarms by narrating vitally grown-up and urgent allegories in the guise of childlike humor.” Bissell agrees that his intent is to catch viewers off guard. “My paintings are fairly realistic, but then as the viewer looks closer he guesses something isn’t exactly right or realistic about what is being portrayed,” he explains.

The painter is currently preparing a series of works for a September show at Erickson Fine Art Gallery in Healdsburg, CA. Inside his San Francisco Bay area studio, a sprawling 1,100-square-foot industrial space, the first thing a visitor notices is the light flooding in from skylights on the ceiling; the glass wall on the north side is so bright that sunglasses are in order. When the eyes adjust they see a spare, minimalist space where about the only piece of furniture is a stepladder. Two large works in progress hang on the walls. “I remove anything that distracts me from what I am working on,” Bissell says. “I need a lot of room to step back and really look at my paintings.”


While Bissell says he is inspired by literature such as the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and by art such as the surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte, his main inspiration stems from nature itself. Ideas for his paintings develop on his frequent forays into the wild, from short treks in the Marin Hills not far from his home to lengthy backpacking trips into remote areas of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mount Shasta. “I pick up on idiosyncratic things I come across on these trips,” Bissell says.

For example, on a recent excursion Bissell was hiking a trail in the Marin Hills when a rabbit popped up along one side of the path, and then another on the opposite side, and so on, until it appeared they were multiplying like, well, rabbits. “Suddenly there seemed to be a number of rabbits looking at me on either side of the trail,” Bissell recalls. In THE WAY the painter captures the essence of this experience by depicting rabbits lining both sides of a carrot-shaped trail leading off into the distance. The towering bunnies evoke greeters in a reception line—almost as if they are saying to guests, “This is our world. We’re watching.”

A Bissell work often incorporates scenes of creatures on trails or roads leading to some undisclosed location. And he gives his works titles that reflect this theme, such as PATHWAY TO MAYA, THE TRAVELER, and THE RETURN. The paintings offer an allegorical nod to the fact that we humans also are on a journey—picking paths, choosing courses, and going down roads that shape our lives. The four-legged stars of Bissell’s visual fantasies are seekers, soothsayers, and seers. In SEARCHERS, for example, a group of bears pose on top of individual hills with their heads thrust skyward as if trying to glean some message from the heavens.

Bissell’s use of gigantism and scale adds a layer of edginess to his whimsical works. In the Eden series, for example, he creates 80-by-48-inch portraits of rats, gorillas, and kangaroos. The creatures stand erect, facing the viewer, and stare with bold, daring gazes. If a work can be both sublime and menacing at the same time, it is indeed in Bissell’s large-scale pieces RATTUS, URSUS, and MACROPUS.

RATTUS, OIL, 80 X 48.

But for all their menace, there is also something humorous about these enormous animals. After all, a 6-foot-tall rat named RATTUS can be both—scary if it really existed and amusing because we know it doesn’t. Thinking about the giant rat, the viewer might also wonder if this could be Bissell’s witty comment on how we often call our foes “big, fat rats.” The artist makes no comment, leaving such interpretations to the eye of the beholder.

Bissell will say, however, that the idea of animal portraits intrigues him as a visual conundrum. “The problem I wanted to solve was finding a way for the viewer to look at an animal yet be looking at him or herself at the same time—creating a reflection, if you like,” he explains.

To accomplish this, Bissell studied the life-size portraits of English and French royalty painted by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and Francois Boucher. The painters captured their subjects in rich, lush settings from a low viewpoint, making them appear more important and stately than they were. As Bissell once told a critic, “It seems that adopting this approach could elevate the status of the animal to that of a human, which would catch the viewer off guard and force him or her to look at the animal differently.” In other words, Bissell replaces courtly kings with kangaroos.

Bissell often portrays animals standing upright, another technique that makes the creatures seem more humanlike. Through the use of both gigantism and postures he conveys what he calls his own sense of inferiority in the wild. “Often they seem to be superior beings with more knowledge in the wild than me,” he says. “I come from the city, and I’m not used to their environment.”


While there are layers and layers of potential meanings in a Bissell painting, one thing is quite obvious: The artist favors rabbits and bears. “These are animals that many people grew up with—bunnies and teddy bears,” Bissell says. “Rabbits probably are there because I was brought up in the English countryside and bears because I have lived in the West for the last 20 years.”

Indeed, Bissell’s home in the urban Bay area is light years away from his origins. He grew up on a farm in Somerset, England, where animals were part of his daily experiences. As a child he spent hours stalking wild red deer, often trying to see how close he could get before they would sense his presence and run away. He says that he once got within 20 feet.

But Bissell had little interest in staying on the farm. After earning his bachelor’s degree at the Manchester College of Arts and Technology, he ventured on to London for post-graduate work in fine art photography at the Royal College of Art.

After completing his studies, Bissell served a four-year stint teaching photography on a cruise ship, eventually deciding to settle in one of his ports of call, San Francisco. A short time later, in 1982, The Sharper Image offered him a job, and for the next decade he climbed the corporate ladder there. In 1991 Bissell became vice president of the company’s creative divisions, with the accompanying trappings of the title—lavish expense accounts, corporate jets, and new luxury cars every year. But a year into the role, he gave it all up to start his own catalog company in Portland, OR.

By 1995 Bissell had grown dissatisfied again, thinking that the catalog wasted far too much paper—millions of catalogs printed garnered only a 2 percent response from consumers. “That’s a lot of trees and paper, and most of it was thrown away,” he says. “I decided I wanted to explore the possibilities of telling people about nature and my view of it.” Bissell had studied drawing and sketching in college and believed that it was just a matter of educating himself about oil painting—after all, he had worked with visuals, compositions, and ideas his entire professional life, he reasoned.

A year later he left his type-A personality behind for good in the Oregon drizzle and returned to the Bay area to follow his new dream of creating his views of nature to share with others. “I had forgotten why I wanted to be an artist in the first place,” he says. “I wanted to get that back, and I am glad I decided before it was too late.”

As a student of ancient history, Bissell points out that pagans and Celtic Christians believed the natural world was the bridge that connected earth and spirit, and animals were spiritual intermediaries. Today, on the other hand, most people live in cities and are separated from the animal world. “Animals used to be involved with humans as messengers with magical functions,” he says. “Now they are really our slaves for consumption and entertainment.”

Bissell says his fondest artistic desire is that his paintings appeal to the intellectual child in all of us, sparking an interest in the mythic as well as universal human values in the tradition of the great heroic-quest stories in literature. In many ways, it seems that Bissell himself is on a quest—to encourage us to reflect on nature as well as the choices we make and the roads we travel. He holds up a looking glass so that we can see ourselves through the eyes of a bear or a hare, and in the process he takes us to a magical place.

Featured in June 2004