Robert Simpson began his career as a realist, plein-air landscape painter. In the mid-80s, he found himself working in a style that was no longer able to convey the concepts he was drawn to: namely, the relationship between man and nature. Increasingly concerned with the state of imbalance in this relationship, his practice evolved from realism to metaphor and symbolism. Man-made objects, sometimes familiar, sometimes non-functional or even nonsensical, are placed in an eroded and depleted landscape field. This landscape is suggested through colour and texture rather than the actual depiction of a place, and is as much a symbol as his objects.
This exhibition features paintings from many of his recent series as well as a number of new works incorporating the iconic superman shield. Simpson often revisits a series until he feels that the conceptual and pictorial possibilities of the subject are exhausted. Whilst his work comments mainly on the disparity between the supply of nature and the demand of human advancement, the symbolic implications of the various manmade objects differ. Rope implies mankind’s capitalist-induced, irresponsible ownership of land, whilst also carrying connotations of the land’s sacredness, as places that are holy for the Japanese Shinto religion are marked with a shimenawa (special plaited rope). The balloons that float serenely across the devastated landscape are metaphors of human fragility in the face of declining natural abundance. Similar to the spiritual connotations of the rope, the balloons also signify, paradoxically, a wish for humanity to ascend beyond a base material existence. Icarus- Launching the Wing, like others in the Icarus series, references the well-known myth to comment on the scale of human ambition and creativity, specifically in the scientific field. The ‘Icarus’ paintings are Simpson’s reminder not to pursue scientific and technical advancement at the cost of our natural resources.
Originally inspired by a photograph of a circular labyrinth constructed on the request of the French King Louis XVIII, the labyrinth series have developed a complexity of meanings, beginning with the initial comment on the ability of the rich and powerful to alter the landscape for their own arbitrary reasons, as well as all the numerous spiritual and archetypal meanings implicit in the form. As the artist chose to fashion the labyrinths out of the same impoverished earth that is his usual background, they unexpectedly started to suggest to him the ruins of ancient civilisations. Consequently, they signify that the mysterious complexity of human ego, creativity, violence and belief will still be impenetrable long after our civilisation collapses, or humanity becomes extinct.
American View (Kryptonite) uses the now-familiar Superman logo to comment on current views of nature in modern religious systems. Simpson credits the belief in an afterlife with the effect of severing the believer from a connection to, and hence responsibility for, the natural world in his or her own lifetime. He views this as an exclusively modern syndrome, as ancient religions held nature in the greatest reverence as a spiritual entity to which one would return. Our current obsession with superheroes can be explained as a secular replacement of the god figure, and thus his use of the logo to convey this idea. The life buoy series of works are also explorations of this theme.
The works in this exhibition are political and complex in their underlying concerns, commenting on human nature and our devastating impact on the environment on which we rely, even with our best efforts to forget this reliance. His works are gentle in their delivery of this weighty message, as Simpson’s paintings are visually beautiful. They captivate, absorbing the viewer completely in their immediate ambiguity, which gives way to an understanding of their meaning as the symbols become apparent.
View the rest of the exhibition here