In the studio: Michael Simpson, painter
"It is hard enough to paint without loading it up too much with meaning'
Friday 16 August 2013
Michael Simpson hates the word artist almost as much as he hates the word art. He is not ashamed to call himself "merely" a painter. Based in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, near to where he taught for many years at Corsham art college, he has been in this current studio space, a former gas works, for 30 years.
The studio is dominated today by two enormous 30ft-by-9ft paintings. These are part of his ongoing series investigating benches that he embarked on in the late 1970s and has been pursuing ever since. "Meditation" is what I would call them, but he rejects the word when I put it forward. Nor does he like the word "surreal", which I also suggest in regard to the floating water drain poised in mid-air. "I prefer to think of these paintings in formal terms," he says. "It is hard enough to do the job of painting without loading it up too much with meaning."
Simpson has had a rich and full life. Born in 1940, as a student at the Royal College of Art he shared a room with David Hockney. "Do you want the sordid details?" he asks. "I can say that David had the thinnest arms that I have ever seen."
Teaching at Corsham at the same time as, among others, Howard Hodgkin, with dedicated students including Glenn Brown and Clare Woods, he has been a quiet figure in the painting world for a long time. There is a rigour in his painting that I see in Brown's work, and when I ask about it, he replies, "Yes, Glenn was a stand-out student who was dedicated and hard working." He pauses before continuing, "I still remember talking to him about science fiction", something that has fed into Brown's work in the past.
We are talking across a large table, Simpson's head framed by shelves filled with intriguing books. He is obviously a bibliophile. Through an archway is his library; nearby stands a pile of small drawings he had been working on in the morning, ideas for another series of paintings, this time of confessional boxes.
Religion, or the "rejection" of organised religion, has dominated his thinking for many years. He was raised as Jewish, although the "horror" of his bar mitzvah led to his intellectual pursuits of atheism, something that he embraces today. It was his studies of the medieval philosopher Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake during the Inquisition, that led to the bench series.
Simpson never knew his father, who had deserted his mother before his birth. He was raised by women as his mother had eight sisters, "simple" but "good" women who did not pursue intellectual pursuits – "there was not a book in the house". Simpson recalls his experiments with gravity, going into the back yard and tossing things up in the air. "I hated the fact that they kept falling down." When I laugh, he says seriously, "No, I really hate gravity."
Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Is this bridge haunted by the ghost of nu rave?
- 2 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 3 The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
- 4 Scientists have discovered a simple way to cook rice that dramatically cuts the calories
- 5 Zayn Malik quits One Direction: Hundreds of workers request compassionate leave following band member's exit
Britain's first cinema flickers back to life following £6m refurbishment
A historian gave the most British look of despair when someone screwed up Richard III's birthday at his reburial
Fifty Chefs exhibition: Photographer Katie Wilson documents the injuries sustained on the culinary front line
James May hints Top Gear days are over following Jeremy Clarkson's BBC exit
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew