For the devout, it’s after-death that’s the major event; mortal life is just bureaucratic idyll, time to kill until you’re green-lighted into paradise. In his exhibition ‘Flat Surface Painting’ at Bristol’s Spike Island, Michael Simpson paints what furnishes the wait: the benches, confessional boxes, minbars, and leper squints which organize the social hierarchy of a place of worship, elevating religious leaders above the idling masses and exiling ‘undesirables’ to a view from outside. Simpson empties the mosque or cathedral of its usual connotations, stripping out any reference to architectural majesty or the intricacy of relics. Religious iconography is blacked out until all that’s left is icon. Well, nearly: while the paintings are graphic-neat at a distance, carefully applied patina is revealed up close. Clean edges are self-consciously roughened up. Reference to art history abounds. Simpson cites, particularly, the pleasure of the interlocking rectangles in Vermeer’s ‘A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal’. “It’s as if he anticipates abstraction,” he says, in an interview with Dexter Dalwood. There are also hints of Donald Judd-esque volumes in his astute, geometric balance, and some surrealist influence to his occasional textual humour. But these citations are subtle, texture under the weight of Simpson’s heavy formal hand.
The asceticism of religious furnishing denies any mortal comfort; one’s body ought to be forgotten, directing mind and gaze in a heavenward tilt. Riffing on this tic of worshipful design, Simpson’s paintings close what’s human out. Their impossible physics and unreflective surfaces resist any bodily response, with the benches and confessionals hovering mid-air, the minbar reduced to an unmountable zig-zag. The ladders barely alight on their provisional ground, too tall or thin to hoist the imagined leper to the hole he must peek through in order to witness the service. Cynical of religious might, the paintings also convey discomfort with the provable world. “Gravity constantly disturbs me,” Simpson has said; as a child, he fantasized of fixing objects mid-air, of being rid of the disappointment of seeing a flung object return back to earth.
The destabilizing effect is ominous — especially in the levitating ‘Bench Paintings’, which are draped in cloth, as a coffin would be in a flag, or tipped ever so slightly by invisible weight. Some are joined on the picture plane by placards bearing texts of heretic cosmologist Giordano Bruno, Simpson’s catalysing influence for this body of work. Taking minimalist meditation down its intended path — that is, the paradoxical fullness-in-emptiness — Simpson also mires the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment in its historical brutality. Bruno’s open criticism of the Catholic Church earned him a roasting at the stake, doomed to silence in the afterlife with a palate pierced by a metal spike. The benches, reminiscent of obelisks tipped over, hint at iconoclasm in a vacuum, opening a web of referents to other forms of institutional oppression. ‘The bench’, after all, is the seat of judicial power, and Bruno’s death was but one casualty of ideological control. It’s difficult to read Simpson’s recent shift to Islamic iconography as anything but Western anxiety regarding the creation of an Islamic State. Painted empty of overt political reference, the works nonetheless underline Simpson’s long-time interest in the repression of ideas by both religion and the state. However noble, it’s a common play in a skeptical, tech- and data-driven world. Simpson’s paintings address the high stakes of making change without risking anything much themselves.