Peter Simpson

Judith Pugh Gallery, Melbourne

There is a singular, even odd, image among the recent exhibition of landscapes by Peter Simpson. it's called Read the Signs. A highway busy with traffic stretches into the distance. To one side of the road are two signs: one, an advertising billboard; the other, a cautionary yellow oblong-both without inscription, both without manifest content. Not even a blank sign signifies nothing. This highway is the road back to Melbourne leaving behind the vistas North-West of the city which the artist has sketched en plein air in the remaining images of the exhibition. This is the road by which the artist travels.

The blankness of these signs communicates the poverty of representation in a contemporary art indebted to the semiotic of advertising: images must be communicable to the viewer travelling in excess of 100kph. Art aspires to advertising else it ceases communicating altogether. In order to be perceived at high speeds, the message becomes elementary. The blank signs together warn the motorist of his impending return to a culture of vacant commercialism. "Slow down, nothing lies ahead".

The other images render views around Bulla and the environs in sketchy impasto, without too much obvious concern for the apparent crisis in representation foreclosing on the straightforward representation of subject matter, especially the landscape. Peter Simpson's images resist or repel the contemporary gaze which incessantly divides the image into the sum of its parts, like so many road signs strung out along a highway. In contrast, the image of the landscape has always required the complicity of the viewer in order to appear. Peter Simpson's landscapes are no different in this regard; the viewer is constituted in a positive- that is to say, unproblematised-identification with the subject. In reference to the representation of landscape in the films of Chauvel, William Routt has called such an identification naive. Themedium is transparent, producing a naturalism in which the viewer readily accepts the sign for what is signified.

The work is not given over to nostalgia but derives historical significance from its context within current debates in contemporary art. The elevated point of view which has been adopted invariably recalls the later work of Streeton, the panoramic views of the Hawkesbury river plains, where the foreground, dropping away, is subordinate to the middle and distant grounds. Eschewing any single overbearing detail, the work reads as a gestalt, 'the viewer tending to see it all at once as a unified 'whole', with the parts deriving their character and meaning from the organization of the whole"., While such a ploy in the 1920s. might be identified as part of a burgeoning nationalism, its deployment today in another historical context characterises it differently. Landscape painting retains a potential to transcend the often gratuitous problematics of post-modernity.

The pleasure of gazing upon these painted landscapes-redoubled by the vertiginous pleasure in looking from a constant elevation-is commensurate with the absence of any sustained problematic proposed by the works vís à vís representation. Naivete here enables the essence of the subject-that is geology-to speak without interruption from the third degree discourses of contemporary art.

The landscape to the North-West of the city owes its form to the great plate movements of the quaternary period and the thousands of subsequent years of fluvial erosion. The view thus afforded looks down into eroded and ancient watercourses and up into vast expansive skies, the most distant horizon supporting a thin line of industry and development. Geology speaks clearly: there is more above and more below the crust on which we scurry about. Human endeavour has little purchase on the earth although its consequences are dire. And from this viewpoint we survey our lot.

notes: 

1. lan Burn in reference to the work of Streeton in The Necessity of Australian Art, Power, 1989, p.22