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.