Michael Simpson, Flat Surface Painting, Spike Island, Bristol

Michael Simpson, Flat Surface Painting, Spike Island, Bristol

Rooted in his fascination with 15th century Venetian and early Flemish painting, but inflected by the formal restraint and reduced palette of Minimalism, Michael Simpson (born 1940) has developed a distinctive, darkly comedic artistic vocabulary which he employs to create works that move beyond their subject matter to question the nature of painting itself. This Bristol show is the artist’s largest exhibition to date.

Included are works from the Bench Painting series (1989–2009), originally conceived as an homage to the Italian Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno. Burnt at the stake for heresy in Rome in 1600, Bruno is regarded as the last great medieval thinker, a martyr to a fully secular freedom of thought, known for his vision of an infinite universe and for realising the full implications of the Copernican Revolution – the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than sitting at the centre of the solar system. Several paintings directly reference Bruno, but increasingly, as the sequence has developed, Simpson has come to see them as vanitas paintings that symbolise the transience of life.

The figure of Bruno also represents another recurring theme in Simpson’s work, the cruel aspects of religious history. Other series take as their subject architectural motifs from organised religion: such as pulpits or the Islamic minbar, confessional boxes and “leper squints” (holes in medieval church walls built to allow sufferers of leprosy and other “undesirables” to listen to a sermon without sitting amongst the congregation).

The paintings move between abstraction and representation, depth and flatness. Key motifs are reduced to their essential geometry and situated in similarly pared-down environments. Forms float, apparently suspended in space; elsewhere light, shadow and perspective root objects to the ground. The use of larger than life-size scale engenders a strong physical engagement; a sense that we could literally step into these exact yet indeterminate spaces. Simpson calls attention to the mechanics of painting, the deceptive force of the constructed image.

Michael Simpson, Flat Surface Painting, until 27 March, Spike Island, 113 Cumberland Road, Bristol, BS1 6UX.

For more, visit www.spikeisland.org.uk.

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1.  Michael Simpson, Unnamed (Confessional), 2015.