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Spotlight, David Simpson, 2006

Looking at a David Simpson painting and speaking with the man, one gets the sense of a person fascinated with the cosmic: the way the pattern of a spiral galaxy is mirrored in the spiral of a hurricane. He seems someone who has spent his life searching, not for some particular answer, but seeking to know more about the universe, to attempt an experience of infinity.

This seeking nature, however, does not apply to his profession. Simpson says that, for better or worse, he always knew he would be an artist, whether or not he’d be successful didn’t matter. (He quips that perhaps the reason was that as a child art was the only activity he wasn’t criticized for.) Teaching art for 25 years at UC Berkeley, he often encountered local high school teens taking community classes to discover what they wanted to do with their lives. Simpson was rather shocked they didn’t already know by the ripe old age of 17.

But Simpson was lucky to have good art teachers as early as at his Junior High school in Pasadena, California. In fact, several other members of his class also went on to become serious painters. How many can say that about their junior high alma mater?

In the 50’s Simpson and several other artist colleagues moved to the Bay Area to study at the Art Institute. There they founded the 6 Gallery as a place to show their art and sculpture, for poetry readings and various happenings. He says, “we were just a group in our 20’s who had no where else to show our art.” There is wonder in his voice when he speaks of it, to this day he can’t really believe the historical significance that the gallery has attained (it is the place where Allen Ginsberg first read his controversial poem Howl).

Although he had the typical figure-drawing training at school, Simpson says he always identified with the Abstract Expressionists of the NY school. He has been an abstractionist through all four of the distinct periods of his work. He jokes, “I don’t understand human beings and so I don’t know how to depict them in art.”

Rather he feels it is through metaphor and analogy that one best evokes the “vastness and energy, power and imagination” of the universe. Simpson tries to echo this power and energy in his work and states that if he could he would love to create a truly “cosmic” work of art. He adds with a wry sense of humor that he thinks it might be futile to try.

Success did come for Simpson, with groundbreaking shows in New York and Los Angeles in the early 60’s. (Though the lifestyle was not, perhaps, what one might imagine. At one time in the 60’s his studio was a sort of cave he’d dug into the hillside next to his Pt. Richmond home.)

A fortuitous event occurred when Simpson discovered interference paints in the late 1980’s. Simpson became a pioneer in the use of these paints that contain micro-particles coated with mica. The particles, hit by light, cause refraction that does surprising things to color, depth, and form. Though other artists have used these paints, usually only cosmetically in their works, Simpson is possibly the only artist who uses interference paints so thoroughly. His research took many years and he is still experimenting with ways to stretch his palette (interference paint comes in only 6 colors) and make the interference shifts more extreme and surprising.

In his seeking, Simpson brings us works of unashamed beauty that cannot be, in some concrete sense, known. They shift, change, sometimes glow with an “infernal” light of their own. In the act of perceiving them, the viewer becomes a participant. As Simpson says, art is not just about perception but ultimately, “The effect that having perceived has on you is as important as the act of perception itself and your awareness of that perception.” Simpson’s work makes us, in this reciprocal experience of perception, seekers like himself.