Review of Michael Simpson: Flat Surface Painting at Spike Island, Bristol

Michael Simpson studied painting at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s. Yet while his peers were embracing the brave new world of Pop Art, Simpson turned to the past in order to recalibrate and reconfigure the transformations of faith, illusion and transcendence in secular society. Rather than simply holding a mirror up to social and cultural structures, Simpson’s paintings dig deeper, in ways that align them with Foucault’s methodological approach. Simpson is an archaeologist of embedded power systems. Indeed, his fascination with the ideas and life of Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance scholar burned at the stake for heresy, becomes a way of disentangling the relationship between representation and institutional exclusion in an age in which aesthetics are dominant.

As well referencing Renaissance techniques of composition and perspective, the Leper Squint series specifically refer to the viewing holes built into the walls of churches that once allowed the inadmissible to ‘participate’ in sermons without entering the congregation. Likewise, many of his paintings use the Renaissance motif of the architectural frame, which becomes an allegory for our times. In an age where ‘choice’ and ‘participation’ are buzz words with which to engage individuals as legal subjects, the screen and the interface mask the power and property relations of self-governance. Here, the frame is key in determining our over-identification with institutions of power. Whether it is the neoliberal pedagogies of ‘Reality TV’ or the binary interface Tinder, the frame invites audience into artwork, without letting it seize the means of production. Under neoliberalism, representational forms become part of  technocratic systems for rationalising and reorganising labour value and exchange, as exploitation of ‘bare life’, and for the exclusion and eventual elimination of non-participatory subjects.

Whilst Simpson is deeply critical of ideological dogma and the brutality of organised religion, his paintings also adopt an ambivalence towards the obfuscating glamour of pop culture and the illusions of our seemingly liberated times. These works are far from agnostic and have a deeply meditative resolve that balances hermetic withdrawal with critical reflection on the social, cultural and physical architectures of exclusion. Simpson plays with the complex and paradoxical relationship between belief and illusion, playing off the ascetic language of American Minimalism against the illusionary tropes of Renaissance painting. His paintings neither conform to the ‘liberated’ anti-illusionism of Minimalism nor the bank-friendly ambivalence of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, Simpson uses the dialogue between illusion and pure form as a way of challenging the neutrality of architectures of exclusion that reduce migrants, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled and the marginalised to ‘bare life’. Equally, Simpson’s uninhabitably shallow architectural spaces remind us of the sheer brutality of contemporary forms of spatial exclusion; in particular the privatisation of public space, in which corporate sovereignty is instated using makeshift architecture, Public Space Protection Orders and the notorious barbarism of anti-homeless spikes and on-the-spot fining.

Far from Simpson’s paintings adopting the critical and complicit stance of Pop Art, they are, in fact, deep ethical reflections on the politics of illusion. Thus, in the flesh, they are anything but flat and shiny. The surfaces are often heavily textured as if a comb has being dragged methodically through the paint, perhaps in a gesture towards the Minimalist paintings of Zebedee Jones. Up close, the illusionary techniques are also thwarted as the brush skims the ridges of these surfaces. Yet, as in the case of the meticulously painted shroud-like cloths that appear in some of his Bench Painting series – seemingly weighing down the coffin-like blocks – the adherence to classical painting is challenged by a lightness of touch that renders this drapery as the ghostly, untouchable projection of cinema. Simpson has increasingly described these works as vanitas paintings. In doing this he presents us with a deeply personal conflict between, on the one hand, the desire for figuration and transcendence, and on the other, the demystifying value in rehearsing death and mortifying the flesh. Indeed, this reflects the paradoxical nature of Giordano Bruno’s fate. In not renouncing his ideas and in his adherence to a belief in the power of transcendence over the body until the bitter end, Bruno ultimately presented himself to the authorities as ‘bare life’.

The austere, coffin-like structures in Simpson’s Bench Paintings appear to float, perhaps alluding to both the resurrection of Christ and the enlightenment’s conversion of hermetic ascension into cerebral transcendence. Indeed, Simpson’s confession of disliking gravity highlights the Cartesian duel between the desire for intellectual and bodily transcendence, and our earthbound nature. Here, the enlightenment shift masks the corporeal relations between power and freedom, previously enforced by medieval authoritarianism and now reproduced in the bio-political sphere of liberal forms of governance. Whether it’s the need for individuals to reproduce and sustain livelihoods within an ever narrowing performative field or the control and regulation of migration, the relationship between the desire for freedom and the exercise of power ultimately comes back to the human body. Simpson’s paintings make us all too aware of the dissonance between corporeality and illusion. The simple perspective of these minimalist trompe-l’œils, recalls Merleau-Ponty, remind us of the ‘ubiquity of body’ in an age of screen surfaces; inviting the bodily imagination to project itself into virtual space more readily than the impenetrability of the touch screen. Likewise, the textural qualities of the paintings are also in dialogue with our bodies. Here, as artist and writer Bernice Donzelmann suggests, ‘surface is flesh, of sorts’. Ultimately Simpson’s paintings remind us that we live in a society in which, despite allusions to the contrary, it is all too apparent that we cannot transcend the body. The coffin-like forms in his Bench Painting series are sober reminders that subjective freedoms and life choices are ultimately bound to the human body; its inclusions and exclusions, its capacity to thrive or wither away.

Bevis Fenner

Michael Simpson: Flat Surface Painting, until 27 March, Spike Island, 133 Cumberland Rd, Bristol BS1 6UX.

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1. Installation view of Michael Simpson: Flat Surface Painting, 2016. Courtesy of Spike Island.