Michael Simpson

Spike Island, Bristol, UK

4_MichaelSimpson_SpikeIsland_StuartWhippsweb.jpg

Michael Simpson, left: Squint 20, 2015, oil on canvas, 2.2 × 1.2 m; centre: Squint 27, 2015, oil on canvas, 2.3 × 1.1 m; right: Squint 18, 2015, oil on canvas, 2.1 × 1.2 m. Courtesy the artist and Spike Island, Bristol; photographer: Stuart Whipps
 

Michael Simpson, left: Squint 20, 2015, oil on canvas, 2.2 × 1.2 m; centre: Squint 27, 2015, oil on canvas, 2.3 × 1.1 m; right: Squint 18, 2015, oil on canvas, 2.1 × 1.2 m. Courtesy the artist and Spike Island, Bristol; photographer: Stuart Whipps

 

Michael Simpson is, unusually, an atheist  who foregrounds serious thinking about  religion. However, though he’s known for the intensity of that engagement, the 21 mainly recent works in ‘Flat Surface Painting’ at Spike Island, Simpson’s largest exhibition to date, highlight another engagement: with painting itself.

Five of the ‘Bench Paintings’, which obsessively occupied Simpson from 1989–2009, serve to contextualize his subsequent work. These huge canvases (typically 2.4 × 5.3 m) depict blocky, uncomfortable-looking seats that suggest the powerlessness of those kept waiting by officialdom, even before you know they are a tribute to the free-thinking 16th-century philosopher and cosmologist Giordano Bruno, who was imprisoned, tortured and burned as a heretic by the Inquisition. The benches, in that light, are shaped all the more like coffins; the places of waiting that come  to mind are prisons, courts and Purgatory.

The horizontal ‘Bench Paintings’ have now given way to the vertically aligned ‘Leper Squint’ series (2012–ongoing). The dozen here show viewing holes built into medieval church walls to allow undesirables to take in sermons while remaining outside. They speak of exclusion and inequality and, while the benches propose a human presence without showing it, the squints suggest both those who would have been looking and listening from without, and the mystery of what lies beyond. How can the relatively highly-placed hole be accessed? There’s a certain humour to the solutions that Simpson proposes, which include several formations of steps and ladders propped against the wall, consistent with a rather precarious viewing position. A much smaller work, Squint (2016), shows just the hole, hung inaccessibly five metres up the gallery wall.

The exhibition also introduces two new motifs. The first is the pulpit, represented in the largest painting on display, the 5.35-metre-tall Minbar (Pulpit) (2015) – another expression of ideas of ascension and of being at the mercy of religious authority. Its colossal steps emphasize hierarchical power, and the use of an Islamic term makes explicit the potential to read Simpson’s work in the current context of Daesh, the certainty and excesses of which stand comparison with the Catholic church in 1600. Second, the depiction of confessionals ramps up the secrecy and potential voyeurism suggested by the squints, especially where  a curtain is included. 

Simpson, then, portrays the scenography for what he sees as the iniquities of religious institutions. In so doing, he evokes the inevitability of life’s passages through a new twist on the vanitas still life. So, why is the show called ‘Flat Surface Painting’? Partly, I would suggest, to deny any transcendental realm. But also because, in spite of his superficially austere commitment to repeated, emblematic depictions of simple objects, Simpson’s subject is the history of painting as much as the history of the church. He fuses a suitably Renaissance concern with how to depict three dimensions on two with the inspiration of early Flemish and Dutch interior painting and Fernand Léger’s way of (in Simpson’s words) ‘painting his images right on the surface of the painted plane’. He also combines the seriality, clarity and geometry of minimalism with detailed surface effects that engage with abstract expressionism. The show’s title, of course, calls to mind Clement Greenberg’s assertion of the primacy of flatness.   

There is very little colour but, in the natural light from Spike Island’s high windows, the predominance of whites and greys serves both to emphasize their subtle variety and to make what colour there is stand out. It often looks as if Simpson has failed to cover some traces of underpainting, but that’s just part of the artfully unfinished appearance that he contrives. Seen up close, there are all sorts of scuffs, marks, incomplete layers and failures of background to go quite to the edge of the canvas. Just recently, an intense yellow has started to appear, making it more likely that we might interpret the submerged flickers of colour as hope behind the bleakness, humanity behind the institutions or –  in terms of Simpson’s painting practice – flourish disguised by rigour.

The well-paced installation at Spike Island has two features that provide coincidental echoes. First, the gallery’s unusually tall radiators prove to be a rather exact match in shape and size for Simpson’s benches. Second, we can hear intermittent choral music from a sideroom showing the video Belt Craft Studios (2014) by Ruaidhri Ryan. Neither are necessary to engage us in the paintings’ intensities, but they act as appropriate links between Simpson’s central metaphysical concerns and the everyday world.  

Paul Carey-Kent is a writer and curator based in Southampton, UK.

Issue 178

First published in Issue 178

April 2016

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018