Sunday, 2 August 2009

Michael Simpson

Bench Number 59, 2000-05
Oil on canvas 244 x 534cm
The Tithe Barn, Bradford on Avon
September 2005

This is one of four related paintings exhibited in 2005 in Bradford on Avon. Psalm (Bench #54) and Prayer (Bench #55) at the Old Gas Works and Hymn (Bench #58) and Song (Bench #59) at the Tithe Barn. They are four paintings that form part of Simpson’s ongoing body of work that started in December 1989 and are known as bench paintings, each un-named but sequentially numbered. They are an ongoing homage to the Neopolitan philosopher Giordano Bruno, mutilated and burnt alive at the Campo di Fiore in Rome for heresy in 1600.

Bruno had written of an infinite universe which had left no room for that greater infinite conception which is called God. He could not conceive that God and nature could be separate and distinct entities as taught by Genesis, as taught by the Church and as even taught by Aristotle. Living in Venice in 1592 he was imprisoned and then sent to Rome where he was questioned and tortured in a papal prison and finally judged a heretic. A sensitive, imaginative poet, fired with the enthusiasm of a vision of a larger universe he was martyred not for politics, but for his scientific thinking being ahead of his time.

The use of the bench as a motif can be seen as a metaphor for Bruno’s time spent waiting in prison for his fate to be decided but also a place where justice and injustice are administered. Apart from the very first bench painting none of the works have any figures in them and over time they have become more austere. This series of four perhaps relate directly to the Church and by inference atrocities committed in the name of God. The elements in the painting are few; apart from the bench itself, the division of the space into shallow foreground and wall the other two elements are the ventilation grids below the bench and a church notice board in the upper right hand corner. Psalm (Bench #54) and Hymn (Bench #58) have specific collections of uplifting spiritual works listed on the notice board. Prayer (Bench #55) and Song (Bench #59) are blank. In a more chilling interpretation of the grids, I could see them as drains but perhaps my imagination is too active. They certainly help establish depth on the flat surface.

The most striking aspect of all of the works is their scale which is twice life size. This prevents the image being read as a window onto another world despite the illusion of depth that has been created. For me this anchors the paintings in reality and makes them an object of contemplation. In fact looking hard has its rewards too; gradually you note the making of the painting is evident. The subtle ribbing of the surface, the subsequent layers of ground colour stopping short of the perimeter edge (impossible to see in the reproduction) and the delicate glazes evoking the fall of light on the bench.

They are paintings that give expression to the idea of the dark, insolent and terrible power of belief, giving form and colour to the nonrepresentable. A very minimalist melancholic vision that was well suited to the exhibition venue.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Interesting -that could be one word to characterize my (first) impression- the references to Giordano Bruno and all the atrocities committed by the Church in the name of God (well known to me as theologian-esp. in the context of Galileo Galilei and criticism of religion in general) give the painting(s) some profoundness, sharpness, and melancholy- but what were the 'benches' without those references? While looking at the grids I too think of drains (for the blood running down- a horrible detail of torture- chambers). Instead of the word 'Song' I had expected some song numbers! The terms 'Prayer-Hymm- Song' can mean almost the same. I had expected some other deatails in order to intensify the claustrophic character of the prison and the references to Church (it must not be a cross or an uncomfortable church-bench!). A provoking painting - and the bench my be an fascinating theme of philosophical- essential dimensions indeed (as we see on Mr. Phillips' blog whose bench seems to get slowly transformed into a cult-sculpture beyond/besides its symbolism of probably existential identity) Despite all my scepticism considering this painting (I have to google about the artist)- I have to say: Your analysis is very thoughtful and perceptive!

  2. Michael Simpson's benchs as "vanity paintings", as symbols of an "endless waiting"...- that is an interesting thought! A painted bench is unusual, I would rather expect a bench as sculpture!
    We have in Münster an impressive sculpture of Edouardo Chillida, titled "Tolerance by Dialogue", showing two benches facing each other, these benches are really used, but not always in the imagined, noble sense!
    I like a poem of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Die Bank/The bench, expressing some wishes and remembrances while waiting and looking back in melancholy...!