A review of Gregg Simpson's Classic Mode: A Reverie, by Jamie Reid
“In the world’s structure, dream loosens individuality like a bad tooth.” (Walter Benjamin, 'Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia')
Vancouver-based artist Gregg Simpson composed Classic Mode: A Reverie as an “…homage to the spirit of classicism from ancient times to the nineteenth century.” Simpson says that the 44 starkly black and white photographs of classical European sculpture, taken by Simpson during several working vacations in Europe, “form a kind of tone poem using various locations in Europe as ‘found art.’”
On its apparently unruffled surface, the book presents itself as nothing more remarkable than a collection of 44 images of classical Western-European sculpture, photographed and published in black and white in deliberately archaic mode and style. But hidden beneath its apparently simple documentary surface, the book delivers a work of profound latter-day surrealism, cunningly disguised as a cheaply produced coffee-table “art book.”
Simpson first composed his photographs with the self-declared intention of ironically mimicking the old style of black and white art museum documentary photography. The resulting photographs became documentary in a special sense.
Each photograph represents an item of “aesthetic beauty”... a beautiful statue. And each in itself is an object of beauty,... a beautiful photograph. The two purposes merge together as in any conventional art book, and they completely fulfill the function of being documentary. But they also serve to bring out some surprising hidden sub-texts, and this is their real purpose.
First of all, these photographs are not images of statues already designated as the kind of “masterpieces” typically appearing in museum guide books or coffee table books. They are statues that have "escaped" previous documentation, part of the multitudinous cultural abundance that can be found in old Europe. They are mainly run-of-the-mill sculptures found in out-of-the-way places, which by some special magic of their own, captured Simpson’s imagination and aesthetic interest.
Each of them appears beautiful or intriguing in some way, each is invested with it own particular magic, supplied by its own inner aesthetic power and the magic of the setting in which Simpson has found it, surrounded by sylvan and pastoral atmospheres: water and vegetation, and sometimes the buildings and artifacts of modern cities.
Simpson has artfully managed to emphasize the magical character of the presence of each of these statues within their landscapes by his careful composition of the photographs so as to allow each sculptured figure its most powerful dramatic presence. The sculptures and the characters they represent seem to appear as living actors in the midst of the lush foliage and calm water or the urban landscapes they have already inhabited for generations or entire centuries. Together they play out a kind of grand formalized drama, but in a dream-like atmosphere, the "reverie" of Simpson's title.
Sometimes their appearance is laughably comic, sometimes it embraces pathos and sometimes terror and awe, but always with a sense of impending or suspended drama, of a mythological and archetypal narrative of gods, goddesses, poets and dreamers, unfolding from secret though powerful beginnings to equally mysterious endings, driven by deep and mysterious motives and desires, a slowly unfolding drama of human power and identity.
Because they cannot appear entirely as modern human beings, the statues carry with them the aura of antiquity, and yet of some still-living presence, struggling and suffering in the midst of being and becoming within the modern world we ourselves inhabit, somehow related to ourselves as living contemporary beings.
The statues themselves are often badly eroded and broken, missing limbs and appendages, covered with vegetable growth. At least two of the statues, one designated by Simpson’s title as a goddess and the other as a sentry, are completely headless. Broken, damaged and eroded as they appear, these statues continue to breathe life, seem to speak and move throughout the centuries, having found new places and new roles through Simpson’s creative work on them. The viewer feels again the mysterious pressure of that past, of ghosts long gone, yet still active in the human imagination.
This uncanny atmosphere was created by a painstaking process: having taken the photographs for his own documentary purposes, Simpson then set himself the task of re-arranging them in a semi-narrative order, breaking the historical order in which conventional treatments would normally place them, including the straight- jacket of his vacation timetable. By this creative intervention, Simpson succeeds in removing the sculptures from the confines of their historical contexts. He thereby instills the subjects of his photographs with a new, or rather, a renewed content. This new content sets up an amusing byplay with whatever meanings history and time have provided to the original statues.
By assigning each photograph a title completely of his own invention, Simpson succeeds in detaching each photograph from its precise place in history and the narrative of his own vacations. They are first decontextualized, and then, recontextualised by Simpson’s intervention, discovering, uncovering or inventing in this process an entirely new set of meanings, previously hidden, but full of drama and sudden portent.
The photographs were then slightly reworked through the hyper-modern means afforded by Photoshop, but without changing the actual content or the form of the images, altering only the brightness and contrast of the photographs, so as to provide a sense of a common emotional register among them within the context of the book.
The two processes of selection and arrangement have served to create and invent a happy surrealist conjunction of accident and design. The overall effect of the work is to induce a dreamlike state of classical calm disturbed by profound psychological undercurrents, including unresolved presentiments of terror, awe and power related to politics and human emotional and sexual relationships.
But behind it all again, another entire dimension appears, the derisive hoot at the pretensions of art and aesthetics that always echoes in Simpson’s ouevre from the influence of Surrealism and from Dada.