Born in a small town near Toronto, Drew Simpson now lives and works in Berlin – possibly the most cutting- edge contemporary art city on the planet. In 2008, he was an RBC Painting Competition Finalist. Although he attended art schools, the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and the Toronto School of Art, he never actually enrolled in painting and was expelled from OCAD due to low grades. But then, ironically, the same school awarded him the highest prize in painting, the Lever Pond’s Award painting scholarship. Simpson’s artistic ability is more than evident in his meticulously rendered miniatures – 16’’ x 12’’ – at his show Appetites for Deconstruction. Simpson’s labour- intensive approach reveals talented draftsmanship; a photographic precision that verges on the hyper real. This is particularly evident in his early Polidori-style detailed interiors with their enigmatic touches. One work shows a bed with an animal head sitting on the coverlet: a surreal offer that cannot be refused. Another depicts a magnificent bouquet, an artful appropriation of the Dutch still life style. There is a jarring juxtaposition in this pretty painting: brightly coloured birds peck at what looks like a grenade. There is often a sense of the strange in Simpson’s art.
In the Galerie D’Este exposition, the artist’s subject matter is simpler. Each painting has only a single, isolated item. (‘‘I found all these images. I tear the ones I like out of magazines in airports as I travel through Europe.’’) This series is highly detailed and richly textured. Simpson’s painterly talent perfectly portrays each textured feather of an owl, each shining facet on a jewel, each caressing ray of light; but with a subtle undertow of something wicked this way comes. Throughout these diminutive works, he takes us to the dark side. While these new pieces are still scrupulously rendered, there are no more bouquets and boudoirs. His choice is now an amalgam of low- and high-brow items: Mundane to Midas. One painting shows a large multi-faceted ring. It prompts a thought on bling accumulation. Yes is more. A bejeweled 17th crown sits decoratively against a black background: Encrusted power personified. (‘‘I like the idea of class warfare – of different ideologies clashing.’’) Another work shows a series of cigarette butts; stand-ins for lives lived. They have a subtle melancholy. They have been discarded despite their bright red ‘look-at-me’ lipstick. A grouping of axes and blocks of wood are executed with the same richly textured picture plane. The wood grain is gorgeous.
The works in this show – all are ‘‘Untitled’’ – command a second glance. The everyday is elevated to iconic status with an undertow of vanitas similar to Dutch / Flemish still life painting of the late 16th century, whose influence can be seen in Simpson’s earlier work. In the latest show, the artist’s subject matter moves subtly into the symbolic; an elegant enquiry into finery and worth; and, yes, life and death. Sprouting a baby bird skeleton (death), an exquisitely executed egg (birth) floats fragilely against a black void background. Specifically for this show, Simpson created an installation of 12 matching miniatures. Returning to his early influence, he has appropriated a subject matter from Dutch still life genre; dead rabbits. Each work depicts a single rabbit. Then, with one skillful brush stroke he brings this art historic past into the present with calligraffiti; an art form that fuses hip street art and calligraphy. In collaboration with a silkscreen artist, Drew Simpson added one simple word. Sorry drips in gold; the word, the lettering and the colour triggering different meanings. The works insinuate a story yet challenge our understanding of the narrative. The artist is critical yet playful. With his delicately detailed enigmatic motifs, he imparts a graceful gravity to his creative comments about contemporary culture. His sensuous depiction of everyday objects has an underlying irony; a mocking message. Using the ancient tradition of miniatures, he adds social insights to his lexicon of symbols. Drew Simpson is our canary; an artistic troubadour who tells of troubled times.
DREW SIMPSON SILLY DAMNED THING ANYHOW
Galerie D’Este, Montréal