Empty Vessels

I think one of the objectives I need to set myself for 2020 is to get in touch with my inner anchorite.

An anchorite was (or perhaps even still is) a person of faith who accepts voluntary incarceration in a cell attached to a church, and lives out a life of devotion therein. The ceremony of walling up was usually accompanied by the Office of the Dead; as the earthly life of the anchorite ended at that point.

The process of becoming an anchorite sounds pretty grim; the volunteer was immured in their cell, with small window for fresh air and conversation with the public – and the donation of alms of food and water into the cell, and the disposal of waste outward.

Many such cells also incorporated a hagioscope – a narrow window throughout the interior stone wall, facing the high altar of the church, not outwards to the outside world. This permitted the anchorite to view the elevation of the host, during Mass; and to partake of that sacrament.

Anchorites were a sort of spiritual resource for their local (and in the case of famous anchorites, like Julian of Norwich) not so local followers. The spiritual independence these women (and they were mainly female) was buttressed by the fact they were only accountable to their Bishop.

So, we have a select set of medieval influencers, offering gnomic and pious commentary on the important spiritual questions of the day.

The Lives of the Saints Uchello c1329

A Sideways Glance at Life

So, one of the key features of being an anchorite is looking at life sideways through a gap in the wall, or haigoscopic vision. In this, anchorites shared something in common with lepers (which, in the middle ages probably incorporated everything from dandruff to the plague).

Here are a few examples of windows or viewing ports let into church walls, so the unfortunately infectious could similarly glimpse the Eucharist, albeit from the exterior of the church.

Interior view of squint
Tiny squint

One artist who has addressed

the concept of hagioscope in their work is Michael Simpson

I find Simpsons work particularly appealing because the viewer has to make something of an effort to view the work as intended – to climb a ladder, to peer through uncertain openings and to see- perhaps what?

After the Spike Island show in 2017, Bevis Fenner wrote

Michael Simpson studied painting at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s. Yet while his peers were embracing the brave new world of Pop Art, Simpson turned to the past in order to recalibrate and reconfigure the transformations of faith, illusion and transcendence in secular society. Rather than simply holding a mirror up to social and cultural structures, Simpson’s paintings dig deeper, in ways that align them with Foucault’s methodological approach. Simpson is an archaeologist of embedded power systems. Indeed, his fascination with the ideas and life of Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance scholar burned at the stake for heresy, becomes a way of disentangling the relationship between representation and institutional exclusion in an age in which aesthetics are dominant.

As well referencing Renaissance techniques of composition and perspective, the Leper Squint series specifically refer to the viewing holes built into the walls of churches that once allowed the inadmissible to ‘participate’ in sermons without entering the congregation. Likewise, many of his paintings use the Renaissance motif of the architectural frame, which becomes an allegory for our times. In an age where ‘choice’ and ‘participation’ are buzz words with which to engage individuals as legal subjects, the screen and the interface mask the power and property relations of self-governance. Here, the frame is key in determining our over-identification with institutions of power. Whether it is the neoliberal pedagogies of ‘Reality TV’ or the binary interface Tinder, the frame invites audience into artwork, without letting it seize the means of production. Under neoliberalism, representational forms become part of  technocratic systems for rationalising and reorganising labour value and exchange, as exploitation of ‘bare life’, and for the exclusion and eventual elimination of non-participatory subjects.

Whilst Simpson is deeply critical of ideological dogma and the brutality of organised religion, his paintings also adopt an ambivalence towards the obfuscating glamour of pop culture and the illusions of our seemingly liberated times. These works are far from agnostic and have a deeply meditative resolve that balances hermetic withdrawal with critical reflection on the social, cultural and physical architectures of exclusion. Simpson plays with the complex and paradoxical relationship between belief and illusion, playing off the ascetic language of American Minimalism against the illusionary tropes of Renaissance painting. His paintings neither conform to the ‘liberated’ anti-illusionism of Minimalism nor the bank-friendly ambivalence of Abstract Expressionism. Instead, Simpson uses the dialogue between illusion and pure form as a way of challenging the neutrality of architectures of exclusion that reduce migrants, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled and the marginalised to ‘bare life’. Equally, Simpson’s uninhabitably shallow architectural spaces remind us of the sheer brutality of contemporary forms of spatial exclusion; in particular the privatisation of public space, in which corporate sovereignty is instated using makeshift architecture, Public Space Protection Orders and the notorious barbarism of anti-homeless spikes and on-the-spot fining.

Far from Simpson’s paintings adopting the critical and complicit stance of Pop Art, they are, in fact, deep ethical reflections on the politics of illusion. Thus, in the flesh, they are anything but flat and shiny. The surfaces are often heavily textured as if a comb has being dragged methodically through the paint, perhaps in a gesture towards the Minimalist paintings of Zebedee Jones. Up close, the illusionary techniques are also thwarted as the brush skims the ridges of these surfaces. Yet, as in the case of the meticulously painted shroud-like cloths that appear in some of his Bench Painting series – seemingly weighing down the coffin-like blocks – the adherence to classical painting is challenged by a lightness of touch that renders this drapery as the ghostly, untouchable projection of cinema. Simpson has increasingly described these works as vanitas paintings. In doing this he presents us with a deeply personal conflict between, on the one hand, the desire for figuration and transcendence, and on the other, the demystifying value in rehearsing death and mortifying the flesh. Indeed, this reflects the paradoxical nature of Giordano Bruno’s fate. In not renouncing his ideas and in his adherence to a belief in the power of transcendence over the body until the bitter end, Bruno ultimately presented himself to the authorities as ‘bare life’.

The austere, coffin-like structures in Simpson’s Bench Paintings appear to float, perhaps alluding to both the resurrection of Christ and the enlightenment’s conversion of hermetic ascension into cerebral transcendence. Indeed, Simpson’s confession of disliking gravity highlights the Cartesian duel between the desire for intellectual and bodily transcendence, and our earthbound nature. Here, the enlightenment shift masks the corporeal relations between power and freedom, previously enforced by medieval authoritarianism and now reproduced in the bio-political sphere of liberal forms of governance. Whether it’s the need for individuals to reproduce and sustain livelihoods within an ever narrowing performative field or the control and regulation of migration, the relationship between the desire for freedom and the exercise of power ultimately comes back to the human body. Simpson’s paintings make us all too aware of the dissonance between corporeality and illusion. The simple perspective of these minimalist trompe-l’œils, recalls Merleau-Ponty, remind us of the ‘ubiquity of body’ in an age of screen surfaces; inviting the bodily imagination to project itself into virtual space more readily than the impenetrability of the touch screen. Likewise, the textural qualities of the paintings are also in dialogue with our bodies. Here, as artist and writer Bernice Donzelmann suggests, ‘surface is flesh, of sorts’. Ultimately Simpson’s paintings remind us that we live in a society in which, despite allusions to the contrary, it is all too apparent that we cannot transcend the body. The coffin-like forms in his Bench Painting series are sober reminders that subjective freedoms and life choices are ultimately bound to the human body; its inclusions and exclusions, its capacity to thrive or wither away.

Bevis Fenner

Michael Simpson: Flat Surface Painting, until 27 March, Spike Island, 133 Cumberland Rd, Bristol BS1 6UX.

Looking Askew

There are so many issues today which simply don’t make sense – poverty, homelessness, anti-immigrant prejudice to name but a few- and they all have certain features in common. Maybe we need to take a focussed lateral view at these issues to understand them better.

There is something dishonest and disengenuous about images which appear at first sight to be direct, frank indeed brutal, but which actually hide their true meaning behind a cloying mask of celebrity and and power.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles Jeff Koons

Why is this image so disturbing? Is it because it trivialises suffering, in the face of abuse, money, wealth and power – actually all the same thing, if you think about it – inflicted upon the vulnerable by a latter day anchorite?

I’m experimenting with hagiographic views.

I’ve taken the perspective of a narrow slit and and wider one, set at an angle , on the the other and explored the relationship between the two in composition and colour.

Here’s what I’ve made

Hagioscopy 6 Mixed media Bob Tate 2020
Hagioscopy12 mixed media Bob Tate 2020

The image above reflects the ambiguities of what can be seen through a small slit.

To be continued….

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