Robert Simpson

Bungendore Wood Works Gallery invites you to celebrate the exhibition opening

By Richard Morecroft
Blake Art Prize Finalist Photographer, Host of SBS Television’s Letters and Numbers, and former ABC TV News Presenter.

2pm Saturday 4 February, 2012 
Octagon ArtSpace Bungendore Wood Works Gallery

Exhibition continues until 26 March, 2012 
RSVP to attend the opening or just come along on the day


In 1985 Robert Simpson was regarded by his peers, and those acquiring his work, as the best traditional realist landscape painter in the country.

He had always drawn and did drawing as art at school, but the first of two books by two influential authors set him on an artistic path that became his life passion. Patrick White’s The Vivisector, the story of an artist, resonated with Simpson to the point that he knew that all he wanted to do was paint.

And paint he did. So much so, and to such a level of excellence that the Etching House Gallery described his ability to “capture the mood of a sun-burnt country and all its earthly tones, brilliantly, using great detail of colour and light,” and further, “that the limited availability of this fine artist’s work is an ongoing issue.”

But 1985 was a watershed year for him when the birth of his son, his concerns for the rape of the natural environment by elements of society and a reading of that second all important book, Desiderius Orban’s What is Art All About? conspired to propel Simpson into an artistic parallel universe of abstracted landscape representation.

Orban’s book talked of art not being allowed to be precious, and was about making art, not about selling it. The author went further to the point of removing objectivity and description from the image while adhering to the tenets of art - structure, shape, form and space.

While preparing the easel for his next traditional landscape, Simpson stared at the blank canvas and the scenario beyond, finally coming to the conclusion, “I can’t do this anymore, I feel guilty, but I’m just going to have to take the plunge.”

So dramatic was this change in direction towards making ‘art for art’s sake’ that he traded realism for metaphor and began employing the landscape as the stage or backdrop for his on-going investigation into the relationship between man and nature.

Simpson now interprets the contemporary landscape and the continuing effects that humankind is having on it. His visually appealing and metaphor ridden imagery is the tangible result of a deep thinking and caring ideology that drives the artist in his work.

While the artistic community was totally supportive of this directional change, it was a huge plunge for an artist to go beyond what is successful and comfortable. This required taking considerable risk to go from economic and technical comfort to re-invention of the self, jumping sideways, or even backwards, as some members of his family and friends thought at the time.

With rapid changes of imagery and techniques, Simpson was like a new a sponge, trying to absorb everything that he could. Somewhat influenced by Brett Whiteley’s intense colour and Francis Bacon’s twisting dimorphic forms, Simpson faces his subject, and stops looking at it after five or ten minutes, but paints on. He is reaching for an image without imagery, just the vestige or the residue of imagery, while still producing something interesting to look at.

Fellow artist and friend Ken Knight, believes that by standing outside, and in front of the motif for too long, an artist can be so influenced by the motif that he or she could eventually lose their own creativity.

Being environmentally green equips Simpson with the ability to inject substantial symbolism into his images. That symbolism wasn’t as apparent or important in his previous role as a traditional realist storyteller. Inherently this allows for visual representations of the worst of humankind’s endeavours to control, suppress, degrade or alter nature, be it society’s intention or not.

His images are charged with emotion, are always heartfelt, and display much integrity. They are graceful and highly intelligent, but are never made pretty to pander to consumer consumption.

In earlier works Simpson painted metal machines and tools, items of clothing and other societal objects, on dry, eroded or miss-handled landscapes. Closer inspection reveals these objects to be non-functional or even nonsensical but they belong very much to the addictive culture of new technology that grows above and beyond society’s perceived needs. These objects are used to illustrate the disconnection between man and nature that has resulted in escalating environmental problems on a global scale.

Two metaphoric tools utilised in his recent work, and the work in this exhibition, are the balloon and rope. Each balloon represents something that is wrong in our society including elements of the media, religion, greed, and the eternal quest for corporate and personal profit. Placing the balloons in an eroded dying landscape gives them even more resonance, they don’t belong there, floating up leaving the landscape behind them to die.

He says,”If you let a balloon go, its not going to live for long, like a fleeting thing, they’re an indoor novelty. For me it all started as a little bit of a jab at our flaccid, feeble society.”

On another level the balloons contain the artist’s thoughts and concerns, reminiscent of the caption, speech or thought balloons placed above the characters of a comic strip, providing a visual voice.

And the balloons also offer a glint of hope, a certain ascendancy akin to their natural rising up when let go, suggesting a more spiritual approach to any possible solution to climate change and the decline of nature in the hands of society.

Rope is a simple but powerful tool for Simpson, and metaphor for man’s actions, with all its connotations of binding up, surrounding, classifying, placing limits on entry or understanding. The rope’s construction can also denote the twisted way that we as a society often see and treat our assumed natural heritage. Cutting the rope and its constrictions may help pave the way forward for us, and the planet. 

Simpson’s technique, the way he puts paints on a level surface, leaves a palpable and enthralling texture, one ripe for caress that would help allow the viewer, if permitted, to get right into his paintings.

Simpson was one of the first artists to use pallet knives. His studio abounds in all manner of implements to place and push paint on his canvas, paper or board, like the six-inch scraper that gyprock workers use to patch a hole in a wall. And he pushes paint around in a very confident manner. 

The juxtaposition of one application technique with another, such as a big knife driven slab of paint alongside fine brushstrokes, gives both dramatic and elegant effects. In his early work he even used mini rollers to apply paint.

His works are always open to interpretation, aided by his avoidance of being too littoral. His abstract landscapes are often ambiguous, sometimes you see a landscape and you can’t quite pin it down. Is that an horizon or not? Just where do you stand! 

Robert Simpson is one of the few artists drawing almost entirely on his own creative energy as his motive force for production. But that doesn’t mean much to him personally. In the end, he believes you have to make a painting that works, regardless of the object, subject or artistic intention.

He is living proof of the all too often suppressed notion of being able to live by the creation of what you do, rather than to simply follow a path that someone else has set.

Getting to know what art is all about can take much less time than it takes to read Desiderius Orban’s book, simply take a look into a Robert Simpson painting.

Stan d’Argeavel MA (Visual Arts)

Exhibition Coordinator

Friday 03 February 2012