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The Secret Life of Cream: Testpot: New Paintings by Ngaio Simpson and Richard Simmonds.

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The Secret Life of Cream: Testpot

Ngaio Simpson and Richard Simmonds at DAF 106
29 Sep 2007 - 12 Oct 2007

robyn by Robyn_e_K

Recently, I had an email communication with one of my overseas pen pals, in which we discussed whether or not we preferred to know the artists behind the works we engaged with, written, visual and filmic inclusive. My feelings were, for the most part, that I didn’t. Indeed, for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of art is speculating, more or less at random, about what it all “means,” with prizes for the most outlandish and/or ridiculous interpretations (this is quite fun when done as a competitive sport - fifty points if you use Freud! And et cetera.) Having said this, I am sometimes inclined to make an exception for painting, firstly because I can’t paint, but also because, by and large, individual paintings are not narrative (old-skool artists such as Poussin and sundry excepted.) What I mean is, if every picture does paint a thousand words, there is a part of me that wants to know what those words might be, and is prepared to accept input on the subject. Consequently, when Ngaio Simpson, college and drinking buddy, invited me in to the opening of Testpot while I was on my way to town to buy an alarm clock (I got drunk. It didn’t happen,) I went willingly, and found, in that small space, many words indeed.

Testpot, a bijou display of 11 paintings all done on canvas with Resene brand testpots, I figured, would be the ideal test of that sort of thing, seeing as Ngaio and I have shared many a glass of wine, but I wouldn’t know Richard from Adam. Also, I know Ngaio but at that point I didn’t really know her work outside of a few older pieces she has on display at her house. And, of course, there was free drink, which is always puts me in the mood for looking at art (or, indeed, for anything, but.) At any rate, I was pleased to find out that her work wasn’t awful, (thus sparing me from any awkward conversations on the matter,) but was struck by the strangeness of the exhibition. The two artists are strikingly different, in both form and subject matter - Simmonds’ exhibited work comprises large, bright canvases replete with figurative images of modern-day Macho Icons, (some titles include Jean Claude in a Box and Arnie,) all painted in a smooth, strokeless hand while Simpson, is represented by several canvases of geometric abstractions in muted tones, and her brush, while it appears smooth at a distance, is expressive and textured, the shapes deliberately uneven and fabric of her canvas clearly visible in places. I experienced an immediate dislocation which was followed, as I viewed, by a mental checklist of what was diametrically opposite about these two artists and their work. If I’d been organising them in to columns in terms of form they’d have been on opposite sides of the page.

To begin with, as you may have, and rightly, assumed, Ngaio is a girl and Richard is a boy, and it both shows in their work and doesn’t, in that their work both reflects and deflects their physical gendering. In the case of Simpson, a femininity could be said to be added to the typically angular, and yes, male, domain of geometric abstraction with her pastel colouring and her lopsided hexagons (“six sided shapes!” she exclaimed, with a drink in her hand, “my kind of hexagons!” It was very funny, though I suspect you had to be there to appreciate the full impact.) Too, though, her disregard for regularity has a dynamic effect which is neither masculine nor feminine, a movement which causes the shapes to ripple and course, rushing to a retreating corner, as in Touch Me, or a bulging centre, as in Untitled (comparisons can - and probably will - be made to Bridget Riley, for the illusion of a stretched, warped canvas, and a seductive interior space in the canvas, a secret rollercoaster for the senses, is certainly at play.) At any rate, though, gender, while engaged by Simpson, is not left smooth or even simply attacked by her work and just as it is in Simmonds’ extremely coloured, worshipful images of Manly Men.

On the Simmonds end of the spectrum, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme and Hulk Hogan are painted in blocky brightness, the figures appearing digital and pixelated (so much so, in fact, that I suspect that digital images were used as cartoons.) The effect is glossy, instant – pop, too, for the comparison with Warhol’s screen printed faces is hard to avoid – and reinforced by his use of cultural cues, such as the Amalgamated Video box that Jean Claude emerges from, or the fisted hand holding a rifle that accompanies Bruce Willis. They commemorate the pixalisation of masculinity, its reduction to a media meme, just as Simpson opens the meme up and paints into the corners. Furthermore, the suggestion of the idea of manliness being packaged for transit, whether in that bright yellow video box or in digital information form calls up that same sense of genderless movement – this time out into the cultural space rather than into the canvas.

In this particular – which came to mind after returning to DAF 106 during the day and without alcohol - it became obvious to me that in exhibiting, Simpson and Simmonds are not so much opposed as they are paired, their styles and content reflecting and echoing each other, engaged in constant dialogue. Indeed, the number of unstable binaries between them could be listed and disseminated ad infinitum: Simpson’s use of organic colours (the blue “hexagons,” in Touch Me stand out like little lakes in a aerial photograph,) vs. Simmonds’ bright-bright-brightness, reaffirming the manufactured, Simpson’s multiplicity vs. Simmonds’ unity of image, or conversely, Simpson’s unity of pattern vs. Simmonds’ suggestion of multiplicity via digital imagery. Yes, we could list them all day. But there is something that crystallises these two artists into an exhibition that is far less obvious than form: both painters display, in one way or another, a tender affection for the mundane.

Of course, this affection is not without derision – Simpson’s Crème de la Crème, a multilayered, rippled paint pond of varied cream shades, when coupled with its ironic title, is clearly a dig at the prevalence of cream in the painting of… well, everything these days, its exalted de la crème status guaranteed by safety - the fact that it will always be “in style,” ergo the owner of something painted cream will never have to acknowledge that anything was done in the service of personal taste. Likewise Simmonds’ placement of Arnie atop a monolithic coloured slab, glorious, oiled and naked but for his panties, an idol fantasy-for-hire could be read as a criticism of the same sort. And further still, the use of paint that is intended for function rather than form operates as a homogenous normaliser of experience, as if to say that none of it is art, it is all, in fact, just part of “life” (these colours, if you’ll recall, all come from the Resene range, not Windsor Newton, and I have it on good authority that the Testpot theme is entirely intentional, rather than a simple exercise in funding.) But, to use that term again (I’ve been reading Dawkins for school – I do apologise,) their identification of these memes of mundanity, of house paint and movie stars and girls and boys and ‘Oh! look! Art!’ is not so much a pointed finger as a cupped hand. That is, instead of declaring censure of the one-size-fits-all trappings of modern culture, both artists seem to be engaged in loving them up, offering them for contemplation and inviting the viewer to smile with recognition, as we would at a friend that we hadn’t seen for some time.

Admittedly, my only pieces of evidence for this hypothesis are my thoughts as I moved around the little gallery the morning after the opening, but they were good ones. Firstly, I thought, looking at Jean Claude in a Box, ‘I love bright colours.’ (I also thought, ‘I wish I’d met Richard,’ for I didn’t, and I did regret it.) And secondly, as I looked over Crème de la Crème, I thought, ‘I ought to give that colour the respect it deserves.’ This second thought stayed with me as I left DAF 106, and travelled with me all the way down Aro Street, looking at all the cream houses with their minutely varied trim, back out into the part of the day to day where the day to day is not, or not explicitly so, examined.

At any rate, what I got from Testpot and what the two artists intended need not be the same to be valuable, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested to see just how much artist and art critic have in common. It is in this spirit, the spirit of scientific inquiry, that I plan to ask Ngaio about it when we’re next at the pub. Interested parties, watch this space. Oh, and the exhibition closes on Thursday, so be quick.

Offering-to-the-Action-Hero-and-Jean-Claude-in-a-B The-new-Rambo-and-Arnie Opening-Night Touch-Me Opening-Night2

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John Hurrell
122 articles & 1507 comments since 2 Dec 2005
Any chance of some images to go with your text, Robyn?
2 articles & 4 comments since 5 Sep 2007
Yup, they're comming toot suite.
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