Who left their fingerprints on Stone’s imagination?
An appreciation of acclaimed local artist Simon Stone
Simon Stone’s work exhibits a powerful litany of images, conjured by a voracious eye and an ever-seeking mind and heart. In conversation, I gathered that the artist has a wonderful faculty to let go and empty the mind and then fill it with copious notes. These notes are expressed and realised as thousands of sketches and drawings, some of which result in the final part of the process – a painting.His work is clearly a labour of love, a seeking out of what to paint, what to draw. And drawing is at the heart of his output, the very building blocks. In quite an idiosyncratic fashion, he tells me that his paintings often resemble a group show in their sheer variety. Stone is equally at home with representational naturalism, the abstract, and the surreal – never quite settled. What strikes me the most is his unwillingness to follow the dictates of a conscious, analytical process, one governed by strict adherence to an idea, theme, or metaphysical allusion. He simply records what comes through the radar, emanating as it does from the deep unconscious, without surveillance, and from the wellsprings of instinct and intuition.
His recent show at SMAC gallery in Cape Town, The Cogs of Mercy, is a title that simply popped into his head, like the flash of insight that might inspire the name of a pop song. He is cool about such a working method, without seeking analytical justification for his expressive impulse. At the same time, he is aware of and draws substance from the history of art, with a knowledge of the chronology of such a history, citing that great, creative explosion with the inception of art on cave walls thousands of years ago.The paintings in this show reveal deft observational skill, a desire to search for the unique in his objects or subjects, and a faculty for the obscure, often even venturing into the abstract. He does not pretend to define the meaning of these narratives and does not evoke metaphysics as such, but rather, in what I would term a Buddhist frame of mind, he enters the meditative space of constructing images, of looking and searching with an open mind and the tip of his brush.
While his paintings are rendered in oil, often coated with varnish, a medium he is obviously at home with, we should admire the hundred or so sketch books, beautifully displayed in the exhibition space at SMAC and replete with hundreds of drawings, mainly watercolours. Some are based on photographs, some simply observations and drawings from life, and others culled from memory. Some work and some don’t; some even materialise as larger, more ambitious paintings. They reveal a working method that goes as far back as the early 1980s, supported by the gallery’s video installation that scrolls through the sketchbooks.He seems to be seeking for “what works” – that is, a visual record – which you could see as some sort of narrative, but more importantly, over and above the suggested story, meaning or idea, is his ability to simply record as if he were a tabula rasa with no attempt to impose a conscious set of meanings. What works is what works, visually. That is certainly not to say the work is bereft of meaning. It’s this very descriptive visual searching – the pulling and pushing colour, curious line-making, explorations in form, texture, composition, and scale – that reveals the humanity of the artist.
For his figures and buildings, his abstract play on colour and line, of scale and pattern, shows a mesmerising devotion to art, regardless of content. One may read content – and some works are clearly “about something” – quite paradoxically, but, in the end, it’s the aesthetic satisfaction and the engagement and pleasure that it affords that consummates decades of looking and making art via countless images, regardless of the clamour of the world.Stone enjoins us to recognise and appreciate the mark without constructing stories, whether of the past or the future. His is an art that asks the viewer to be in the now. The “ten thousand things” are like the dance of Shiva, so, in parallel fashion, his countless drawings are a dancing mask that conceals an inherent unity. Having said that, I run the risk of constructing an intellectual edifice, a system of beliefs, rather than just allowing the flow of images to pass by. You could say that Stone’s work is a meditation on sensuousness and the ephemeral passing of things, of change and transformation, and the perennial search for solidity amid change gained through visual perception. Yet that is quite contradictory, for our visual fields are not static. He seems to try and tame this flux by numbering and titling his drawings in his little notebooks. In my estimation, this is the play/dance where the right brain as it were embraces the left brain.
A career that spans some decades, Stone has exhibited and is represented widely In South Africa and abroad.