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Features / January 5, 2016

Drew Simpson in Berlin: Tabletop Carnivalesque

R.M. Vaughan meets up with Drew Simpson in Berlin to discuss his work and the looming change that will irrevocably alter his painting.

This is an article from the Winter 2016 issue of Canadian Art.

Notes scribbled while visiting Drew Simpson’s studio: Dead animals, everywhere. A taxidermy weasel, a taxidermy chick (with two heads). Strips of fur, former stoles, dust-flattened embroidered finery. Antlers, bits of antlers, trinkets made from antlers. Deer skulls on plaques. A cobra in full rage, pickled in a jar. Teeth, claws, dried hides. Opalescent beetles embedded in glass. An entire cow’s dappled back, now a rug. An ivory Jesus, crucified.

Walking into Simpson’s small, tidy but full studio apartment in the Turkish district of Neukölln in Berlin is a bit like walking into a defunct, perhaps disreputable museum’s storage basement, a “freak show” caravan or the bedroom of a particularly morbid teenage boy—a boy who has traded model cars for skulls and bones. Except there is nothing childish at work here—Simpson is, pardon the pun, a deadly serious painter. And all those gruesome gewgaws? Props. Props and visual aids, cues and prompts.

Since leaving Toronto in 2009, after extended stays in Morocco and Spain, Simpson has slowly but determinedly carved out an international career. He has exhibited at and participated in art fairs in Berlin, Barcelona, Montreal, Toronto, New York, London, Chicago, Madrid and Paris, among other places. His work sells, and Berlin’s low cost of living makes existing exclusively from the sale of his work possible.

Many in his Toronto circle of emerging artists found his initial departure baffling, especially as he was moving a lot of product at the time and had just been nominated for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition prize. But, as he puts it, he has a long history of abruptly leaving his own comfort zones. He left the small town of Milton, Ontario, where his family still lives, for Toronto at 22, and scratched out a living pouring coffee to bored east-end lefties while attending OCAD University and then the Toronto School of Art (neither of which, in keeping with his pattern of sudden departures, did he stay at long enough to get a degree). His last years in Toronto were spent in a shared house that became the epicentre for video-screening parties hosted by his then roommate, and good friend, Jubal Brown.

By his own account, Simpson was playing the game, attending all the right openings and glad-handing his way around the art world, being the young bon vivant. And then something snapped.

“I left Canada, honestly, because I needed to have the opportunity to fail. I was working so much, for the art-fair sales and the regular sales, making hundreds of paintings, all the exact same size and look, and I was enjoying it, but I was under so much pressure to have this recognizable product, over and over again, that it was stifling,” Simpson admits, while huffing on his umpteenth cigarette of the day. “I could have gone anywhere that would be easier on me financially, to, you know, make a bunch of stinkers, so that I could explore what I was doing. And it worked: I really only started to come to people’s attention outside of Toronto when I was able to cram a year’s worth of disregarded ideas into a handful of paintings, because I didn’t care if they sold or not.”

Given his flourishing career, I’m surprised to learn that I am the first writer to ever interview Simpson, and even more surprised at his seasoned, and exact, responses to my questions. By the time you read this, Simpson will have finished and shown the work he shared with me, in a September 2015 exhibition that also marked a kind of 10th anniversary in his career (using his first solo commercial exhibition with Toronto’s Christopher Cutts Gallery in 2005 as a marker). But despite his busyness, and the celebratory tone of the preparations for a “10th-anniversary show,” Simpson seemed to be at a crossroads with his career (and, I learned, very much his life). He seemed restless. He knew exactly what he wanted to make next (he is, by his own admission, a chronic over-planner) but he also admitted that he is beginning to ask himself where he will be 10 years from now.

To wit, a follow-up question about his departure from Canada provokes a more blunt, if somewhat jaded, response.

“I got some really good advice from senior artists when I lived in Toronto: if something takes off, beat it to death for five years. I took that very literally… I made hundreds of paintings that looked the same for five years. I don’t regret it, but the thing is, when that happens, you become valuable to a gallery or a dealer because you’re predictable, and then the weight is on your back to repeat your sales history. You’re responsible for their costs, attending the fairs and all that. That’s a lot of pressure. And when you do try something different, you’re disappointing everybody. That is the market model, and it’s not unique to Toronto at all, or Canada, but I wanted out of it. Also, I know now that I was frightened of change, because I really enjoyed the idea of success that I was living under. But you can’t make work out of fear forever; it eats you up.”

Talk of fear prompts an obvious follow-up question, given all the preserved entities surrounding me, Simpson’s many little Wunderkammern of bone and fur: what’s with all the dead stuff?

Simpson looks around his home and workplace (he works very small, and never needs more than a tiny table and an easel), and gives me a somewhat puzzled look, as if noticing for the first time that his apartment is a bit of a fright show. How, I wonder (but don’t ask) does he bring new lady friends home to, well, a pile of skulls (knowing full well, via our mutual friends, that Simpson is in many ways a classic womanizing, sell-his-soul-for-a-good-fuck straight male painter)? Is he fascinated by death?

“Fear rules my life. Everything in my life is fear-based. That’s my trajectory, running away from what I fear. Just making art every day for eight hours a day gets me into my safe zone. Not having that creates anxiety. I escape into this tiny world, on a small sheet of Masonite, a world I can control completely. I don’t think my work is morbid, though. I think it’s pretty. People are instinctively drawn to the devastation, what incidents or horrors or just death that these objects, and my paintings of them, represent. But few people look around at the rest of the image. If you had a photo of the Titanic sinking on your wall, you’d think of the tragedy, of course. But would you look at the stars in the night sky, the waves, how pretty the iceberg is? Ninety percent of the surface of any one of my paintings is that sky, those waves, but people naturally see the skull or the snake or the wolf-boy’s face first, and then stop looking. I’m interested in the environment around horror. I’ve always been fascinated by spaces where things, good or bad, have happened, or are about to happen. I love empty rooms. When I was a kid I used to leave a room and then turn around, really quickly, to see if I could catch what was going on after I left, like the room was alive. I’m very interested in what the wallpaper might be able to tell, what the walls and furniture have seen.”

Fair enough. And there’s plenty of horror on offer. Simpson’s paintings are lurid and yet studious, made with precision and single-brushstroke care while glamourizing baser, rougher instincts and murderous impulses. They thrive on contradiction and surreal mash-up but present as hyperreal, too real. In a Simpson painting, the viewer is comforted and initially set at ease by the exaction of the image (a beautiful room, a perfectly poured tumbler of whiskey) until the full content of the image, the carcasses (among other monstrosities) so sweetly rendered, demand attention. It’s a balancing act, a game of reveal and obscure that Simpson meticulously maps out. A typical day of painting involves hours spent getting the right curve on a skull’s eye socket, or curling the hair of a wolf boy just so, with just enough bounce.

“I find all the preserved things I keep, all this ‘dead stuff,’ as you put it, incredibly safe and comforting. I don’t feel that I’m surrounded by death but life, and how interesting and unpredictable life is. I don’t obsess about my own demise or anything like that. These things,” Simpson gestures to his collection, his enshrined objects, “all have memories. I respect them. And they turn up in my work, and always have. When I was a kid I made Wunderkammern before I had even heard that word. My mother tells a story about how when I was a little kid I would come home pulling my wagon and it would be full of dead snakes that I’d found, and I’d present them to her like a cat does, like they were presents. If I wasn’t in my room obsessively drawing all the time, or making models, I’d feed spiderwebs for hours. Ha! My poor mother!”

Simpson is a well-known contrarian when it comes to matters of art making and process. Art, he believes, should be hard to make, and a work is only of value when it displays, even brags of, the effort behind the final object. Simpson loves to infuriate his fellow artist by delivering drunken rants on the importance of craft, of skill and labour. When I first met Simpson, four years ago in Berlin, our mutual friend, painter Ron Loranger, warned me, “Drew will try to get a rise out of you sometime in the next 10 minutes.”

But I’ve been baited before. My conversations with Simpson tend to boil down to me telling him how archaic his views are, and him reminding me that he might be old-fashioned, but he lives exclusively off his sales and has never sought, or won, any form of governmental assistance. Both of us agree on one thing: the easygoing life available in Berlin, a life that reads industriousness as gauche, can be a career graveyard. The city is littered with artists who do almost nothing, because they get away with it.

“Artists who spend all their time outside their studios, doing ‘research’ by living their lives out loud—I mean, how much of that do I really need to do for a five-inch painting? How much more involved do I have to be in the Berlin art-party world? I’m so process-heavy in what I do that I don’t feel the need to be out there on the alleged scene, looking for new energy for my work. I have plenty of energy. Sometimes artists, particularly here in Berlin, fall into this party lifestyle so that when they do make a work they can have a story about their lives that corresponds to or supports the work. I just make the work. It looks the same anyway. I really find all that multi-dimensionality already embedded in my work, it’s so intense, that if I had a stronger social impulse, I’d be overwhelmed. I’m a social person, but I need lots of solitary time. The mentality here, among German artists, is very different. Their lives are their art; they don’t expect to live off of their work, they expect to have a life because of their work—so, they work far less than North American artists. I’m glad that’s not the way I was raised in the artworld. Berlin is a delight; this city sells its freewheeling lifestyle as an art form. Lazy artists love it here! Ha!”

When I tell him he lives like a writer, Simpson admits, “I’m a bit of a monk, but without the celibacy! I’m very comforted by routine and study and looking, just looking. I will spend hours poring through art books looking for…hmm…for what the painting I’m working on fears the most. That’s where I come in, when I find out what that thing is, when making the painting makes me feel giddy. Sometimes I have to sit on a painting for months before I figure out what that intervention will look like. The aha moment comes when you need it. But I’m describing my work process like it is some exact thing, and truly, it’s never quite the same twice. I have had a lot of false aha moments too. At the end of each painting I wish I had done something differently. It’s like getting a tattoo; you have to have the balls to live with it forever. I trust my instincts, even when they fail.”

Simpson’s fascination with, and inspection of, the fearful and grotesque, and the visionary possibilities of both—the mystical, intangible insights horror can provoke—is in danger of becoming something more than an abstract pursuit and far too grounded in banal reality, of becoming a very concrete and devastating daily situation. Simpson, a lifelong diabetic, may lose his sight.

Last spring, he woke up one morning and could not focus his eyes. The world appeared to be hidden behind wet glass.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride. I found out that I have an irreversible eye disease, the number one cause of blindness in the West: diabetic retinopathy. I woke up one day, and my life was one of my paintings. I could see blood inside my eyes. The deepest red I’ve ever seen. I knew exactly what it was, immediately, because I’ve been waiting for it since I was a child and found out I am diabetic. I’ve had dozens of surgeries and treatments and tests in the last six months. I’ve lost a lot of my peripheral vision, and the grim reality is that I’m going blind. There’s a timeline.”

Knowing that Simpson has been well aware that diabetes would “catch up” with him one day, the cheap psychologist in me can’t help but wonder if his work, in particular his desire to craft dissonant mise en scènes—the skull on the designer bed, the snakes on the bar, the lupine child dressed like a royal—is driven by his own fears of a sudden, horribly broken future.

“I haven’t really explored what I’ve been going through because I needed to finish the projects I started before this all started…I’m planning to make art about this, but hopefully not something cliché and predictable. In a way, I’m not so much upset as I am disappointed in myself. Could I have caught it earlier? I asked the doctors if working so small, staring at the boards all day, was making my vision worse, and they all said no. All I can do now is slow down the process of degeneration by keeping up with the surgeries and treatments. Honestly, I think I’m supposed to be more upset than I actually am.”

When I tell Simpson that were I in his place, I’d lose my mind, he shrugs.

“Maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll find a way to make a new opportunity out of the quality or type of vision I have left. I know I won’t get any work done sulking.”