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Thrown Together

Simon Stone at SMAC Art Gallery Cape Town

By Lloyd Pollak
08 December - 31 January. 0 Comment(s)
Nine Boxes

Simon Stone
Nine Boxes, 2011. Oil on Canvas 117 x 94cm.

Like his exhibition at the Irma Stern Museum in 2006, Simon Stone’s current show, 'Thrown Together', comprises a variety of his characteristic pin-board compositions, a handful of his still lifes and several of his thick 500-paged notebooks crammed with watercolour sketches that serve both as reference for his painting and as limbering-up exercises. On average, Stone produces about 120 of these a month, and their exhilarating freedom and spontaneity make them an accomplishment in their own right.  

The still lifes, like Nine Boxes, are highly accomplished works in which conventionally beautiful subject matter cedes to stark arrays of prosaic, utilitarian objects usually deemed devoid of aesthetic significance. Delicacy of colour, form and line transmute the nine empty cardboard boxes into a Whistlerian exercise in sumptuous restraint. Apart from a little cardboard brown and black, this tonal symphony revolves around luscious creamy whites that assume myriad different chromatic disguises as they reflect the colours of objects adjacent to them, flushing with tints of pink, gray and violet so pale and nuanced as to be almost imperceptible.

The squares and rectangles of the open and closed boxes are integrated into a sculptural essay in minimal geometry, and the carefully orchestrated contrasts between the solids and voids, the shapes and sizes, reveal a flair for placement, interval and rhythm worthy of Morandi. The boxes dictate a cubic theme, and the frame, drape, wall and table’s metal base either repeat the basic motif, or ring changes upon it, so that the entire painting becomes a fugue-like sequence of themes and variations.

The pin-board compositions are motley compilations of media images plundered from different cultures, continents and eras. Travel, art and architecture are the mainstreams of the artist’s inspiration, and some of his most arresting passages are painterly reveries, which evoke his favourite remembered places with a dreamy lyricism and wistful yearning. Nothing could be more evocative and atmospheric than the vignette of Table Bay in Fermi’s Lecture, the cameos of Victoria Falls and Knysna lagoon in Blue Summer, and the gray, wintry London skyline in Goodbye to Candescence.

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Stone can wring a gritty poetry from the most humdrum subject matter, and his paintings of urban landscapes and nondescript architecture emote a haunting blankness and silence. Familiar scenes, such as the Sea Point beachfront, a freeway tunnel, or a suburban street lined with cars, resonate an unsettling otherness and mystery. There is also a witty and playful facet to the artist, which emerges when Stone trips the light fantastic in whimsical, freewheeling improvisations like Alpha 35 Omega and AJCF … Under the Spell. These ham-fisted peregrinations of the brush exude the wonky charm of Hockney’s faux-naif caprices, and their breezy impromptu freshness contrasts with the artist’s tighter, more deliberate works.

Although the subject matter is traditional, rehashing the stock content of still life, landscape, nude, portraiture and other genres, the presentation is novel. The paintings are discontinuous conglomerations of unrelated images, which are either placed one on top of the other, spliced together, presented through split-screen techniques or juxtaposed upon a field. The latter can be a tonally modulated monochrome, or it can evolve into an intricate colour field painting enriched with abstract brushwork and painterly marks, as in One Time Zone – Sliced.

The cavalier manner in which Stone’s flouts the statutes of the modern movement by continually violating the flatness of the picture plane, the hints of narrative – albeit cryptic and submerged – and the apparent absence of socio-political comment or any kind of statement or conclusion, suggest postmodern allegiances. All the foregoing characteristics are evident in Scandinavian Man. Here, like David Salle, Stone places heterogeneous visual elements side by side, juxtaposing a youth, rudimentary line drawing of a silhouetted head, city building and terrestrial globe. Although the formal relationship between the different elements is invariably impeccably resolved, Stone deliberately conceals whatever internal logic links the various elements within the composition.

The lack of any evident exegetical unity transforms his paintings into tantalizing brainteasers. They challenge the viewer to fit the parts into a meaningful whole, and find some unifying thematic thread. This intellectual discontinuity endows Stone’s imagery with the obsessive, but infuriating fascination of an insoluble crossword puzzle. The paintings hook and snag into our consciousness, making us endlessly ponder and mull as we attempt to find the unifying principle that holds the hodgepodge together. Does such a thing exist, or are the juxtapositions purely haphazard? This is the nub of the problem. If the answer to the first question is yes, the works possess structure and meaning. If no, the images are either meaningless, or concerned with the absence of meaning, which is a very different kettle of fish.

Red Painting with a Mask presents a compendium of images representing an ancient Egyptian mortuary temple, French Gothic effigy of a Madonna and child, African mask, modern abstract painting, blocky sculpture a la David Smith, Karoo landscape, and the knee and hand of a standing nude. These components either allude to African tribal art, or the modernist and old master traditions; alternatively, they invoke the disciplines of photography, drawing and painting through their reliance on grisaille, outline and brushwork. This suggests that Stone’s themes are image making and the conventions of representation.    

Comb and Pipe, a work so similar to Red Painting with Mask that it could be its pendant, actually reproduces Magritte’s famous pipe from The Treachery of Images (1929). This iconic work, which carries the inscription 'Ceci n’est pas une pipe', is explicitly concerned with the slippage between painting and the objects it represents. The gap between the two becomes Stone’s major theme. His works bracket cityscapes, landscapes, nudes, domestic interiors, portraits, pure abstractions and passages of Art Brut together within a single painting, and the contrast between the different styles and different conventions immediately suggests that there are many alternative ways of representing an object, and that none is more valid than another. The concept of the picture as a window on the world also falls apart when the artist, instead of producing a single framed vista, floats several views of receding landscapes and cityscapes, devoid of any consistency of scale or viewpoint, upon the flat ground, as in Scandinavian Man.

The ingenious tricks Stone plays with the picture plane further undermine the veracity of his illusionism. The image of the boy in Scandinavian Man does not appear to be painted directly onto the canvas; it seems to be painted upon a sheet of paper collaged on top of the canvas and secured by trompe l’oeil nails that puncture the picture plane and cast fictive shadows upon it. Immediately to the left of the boy, an oval aperture opens up in the flat greyish white ground, and we look through this and glimpse a city street receding into depth behind the picture plane. These strategies make the act of looking knowing and self-consciousness, alerting the viewer to the manipulation and sleight of hand underlying Stone’s figurations. 

The discrete images within the composite paintings are all drastically cropped, cut off, partial and incomplete, mere fragments excerpted out of a continuum. In Red Painting with a Mask, for example, we see a detail of a window on a fa?ade, a section of a Karroo kopje and part of a Gothic Virgin. The paintings neither pretend to present the whole truth, nor to reproduce reality. Stone’s art is self-reflexive: both the paintings, and the paintings within the paintings, avow their reliance on artifice and contrivance, and disclose their identity as works of art. They address questions of colour, form, composition and pictorial space, and deal with the treachery of the brush and the mechanics whereby art mediates reality. This is art primarily about art, and only secondarily art about reality. Like the artefacts produced by the Aesthetic Movement, it glories in its confected quality and justifies its existence purely on aesthetic grounds. Modernism comes full circle in Stone’s canon.