Pardon my directness, but what is it with Spike Island and ‘flat painting’? In 2013 we had David Batchelor’s ‘Flatlands’ and now in 2016 we have Michael Simpson’s, no frills, ‘Flat Surface Painting’. Maybe three years is enough of a gap to reintroduce notions of ‘flatness’ to those who may have missed it the first time around?
Now as before, the viewer is invited to see these supposed flat paintings up-close and from afar, thanks to the cavernous spaciousness of Spike’s gallery, and gradually come to the realisation that in many ways there is no such thing as a truly flat painting only a matter of the perspective from which we view it. From a distance Michael Simpson’s paintings do appear very flat indeed and they are direct in their iconography like an advertisement or billboard poster; we recognise a ladder, a steel beam, a chair, stairs, a sheet, but when viewed up closer they become much more painterly, and the surface and layering of paint becomes more visible. These layers are still applied very flatly and evenly, but none the less it is almost joyful to detect traces of brush marks or scraped trowel-like marks that prove these paintings were created by a human hand and not a machine. The human element to these paintings is important because they are so huge, so precise and so cold when viewed from afar that they seem almost uncomprehendingly not human. The reality of seeing them up-close reveals that not to be the case and it warms these paintings up so that we begin to consider the person, the painter who created these images.
In an article from The Independant Karen Wright writes, “Michael Simpson hates the word artist almost as much as he hates the word art. He is not ashamed to call himself "merely" a painter.” Which seems on one hand an incredibly empowering stance on rejecting the labelling and conceptualisation of the terms, ‘art’ and ‘artist’ and the purity and commitment to being a painter, almost 'painting for paintings sake'. Simpson proceeds to say, “It’s hard enough to paint without loading it up with too much meaning.” A statement that will undoubtedly be identifiable to many. At the same time however all of this comes with a touch of hypocrisy, to hate the term art yet be in the privileged position to have a solo exhibition at Spike Island; which gets me thinking that the art world is possibly the only industry in which you can still succeed by renouncing it all together; though in reality possibly not the case for so many looking to climb onto the first rungs of the ladder. Simpson, studied at the Royal College of Art in 1940, sharing a room with Hockney; growing up in a Jewish family but pursued atheism in search of, ‘other intellectual pursuits’. This rejection of religion has played an important part in his work; studies of the medieval philosopher Giordano Bruno led to the creating of the ‘bench series’ at Spike. Elsewhere confession box-like spaces, complete with curtains and chair or windows further allude to religious practices. The ladders and ascension like levitation of the steel bar (or bench) are also symbolically religious, but here being used as more formal constructs first and meaningful ones second; their flatness having something in common with frescos and illusionary qualities combining both the formal techniques of painting and the suspended belief and notion of the miraculous found in religion. A staircase becomes a formal black zigzag line across the canvas first, and a metaphor for ascension or decent later.
Although one may accept these are flat paintings they have illusionary and perspective qualities that could suggest otherwise; the life size ladders; tilted brick-like forms and a steel beam which are depicted from an angle and not face-on creating an illusion of depth and the sculptural; draped sheets rendered with 3-Dimensional accuracy. Its suspension in the picture plane another illusion of the heavy made weightless. If I have learnt one thing from this exhibition it is that when less appears to be happening, the more is actually happening. The ladders are for me the best paintings in the show and have a believably mundane point of reference to them that ticks the formal qualities, minimalism and symbolism box with great ease. The other works are epic and show tremendous technical skill but feel a little cold and require more suspended belief than what I have as they sit more uncomfortably between the minimal and the surreal without really being either. Curiously for a show that features so many flat paintings, they are actually all quite uplifting.
‘Flat Surface Painting’ can be seen at Spike Island until March 27th 2016
Quote and image sourced from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/in-the-studio-michael-simpson-painter-8771159.html; http://b247cdn.co.uk/14206/hero/web/michael-simpson-1450260339.jpg