Catalogue of Works Installations Welcome Page

Catalogue Essay

This exhibition of paintings and collages from 1970 to 1975 is called the Atlantean Years. When I completed these works, I was studying subjects such as alchemy, mysticism, the occult, and mythology. I was particularly interested in the legend of Atlantis which parallels stories of the Garden of Eden, the Elysian Fields, and the Garden of the Hesperides. Each of these symbolic stories deals with the evolution of human consciousness and represent the main sources of the Western occult tradition.

I was also influenced by the international ‘neo-surrealist’ movement that had some roots in Pop Art. The works in which exhibition are infused with a humorous, almost absurdist quality. I was interested in achieving a sort of mock heroism and aberrant romanticism.

The paintings were also created in the tradition of the hand-painted collages by Belgian surrealist, René Magritte, who was also an early influence. In the 1970’s, Magritte’s work was absorbed into popular culture, particularly in North America where his paintings provided a link between Surrealism and Pop. In both my paintings and collages, I aimed to achieve a minimalist simplicity that provides a balance between formal and magical qualities.

In The Talisman (acrylic on canvas, 1970), I utilized a mystical device—a subdivided triangle known as the Tetragrammaton. I filled each of the interior segments with cabalistic symbols and other motifs. I then created The Adept (oil on canvas, 1970) to fuse a post-1960’s sensibility with the magical imagery I was interested in exploring. My goal was to create the kind of ‘occult surrealism’ which André Breton called for in the Second Surrealist Manifesto.  Two of Breton’s colleagues, José Pierre and Sarane Alexandrian, recognized this occult surrealism in my work and as the trademark of the ‘west coast surrealist’ movement.

In 1972, I developed the motif of the horned helmet worn by the Adept. In many cultures, this motif symbolized the wisdom of the ancients. Examples include the Aurignacian cult of the bull, the mythologies of the Mediterranean, and symbolic systems within the Amerindian cultures and those of Africa and Melanesia.

In Persian Gulf (oil on canvas, 1972), I fused this symbolism with the world of the ‘fantastic’ in the form of a biomorphic shape, a creature from my imagination who nestled against a crescent shaped form that would have been familiar in Minoan Crete.

A further development took place in Picnic in Hell (oil on canvas, 1972) in which a flattening of the picture plane took place. In this tableau, I was also referencing the flat, decorative quality of French Symbolists such as Maurice Denis.

I designed the series of claw images from 1973 and 1974 in Paris during the exhibition I had organized for the Centre Culturel Canadien, Canadian West Coast Hermetics: The Metaphysical Landscape. In the Claw Series, I continued to explore the theme of the survival of ancient and arcane forces lurking beneath the surface of the material world.

Works like Caravanserai, Wanderers, Sahara, Jou Jouka, Visitation (all acrylic on canvas from 1973) and The New Age (1974) also hint at exotic, southern sources such as the tribal music of the Moroccan Berbers and the survival of the cult of Pan in the far reaches of the Rif mountains. The links to Atlantis in this region may yet be proven as new discoveries bring scientific reality to this ancient myth. The very name of the Atlas Mountains is significant here as are the writings of Diodorus Siculus that refer to the Atlantes and their war with Europe and the original legend as told by Plato.

The Metaphysical Interiors of 1974-1975 are primarily influenced by my renewed interest in the Italian Metaphysical painters such as de Chirico, Carra and Savinio. This series provided me with yet another door into the remote past.  Works such as The Kingdom of Poseidon (acrylic on panel, 1974) and Ulysses (acrylic on canvas, 1974) were two of my last attempts to conjure magical, mythic imagery within the neo-surrealist style.

Beginning in 1975, I began to add semi-automatic traceries to animate the superstructures that contained them. This style is evident in Ancestral Memory (acrylic on canvas, 1975) and especially The Genagual (acrylic on canvas, 1975). The latter painting combines the ‘genetic’ with the ‘nagual’, which is the name for unknown powers associated with the brujos or medicine men of Mexico. The information I was deriving from my reading of Carlos Casteneda’s books on the Yaqui sorcerer, Don Juan, also fed into many of the drawings and frottages from this period. The swirling forms predict my gradual transformation towards the use of ‘automatism’—a technique I continue to practice.

In the collages, I use humour in works such as Saved at Last (1972) and Sea Story (1973) in which the last remnants of Atlantis float by and in Ragnarok (1974) that contains hints of an ancient cataclysm. In the black and white collage series from 1971, entitled The Black Arts in Antillia, the sources were the writings of Edgar Cayce on Atlantis and especially works like The Occult Sciences in Atlantis by Scottish mythographer, Lewis Spence. Both of these writers describe the destruction brought about by an evil priesthood who conducted experiments on the populace and ultimately destroyed Poseidon`s island kingdom.

Conjectural as these sources may be, they also provided fuel for a zealous imagination unconcerned with other tendencies in contemporary art at the time. I sought to subvert the notion that all art after 1970 would somehow be rigorous and reality-based. This sensibility is the very opposite of the primacy of the poetic imagination called for by Breton and the surrealists and which I have sought to embody throughout my career.

 Gregg Simpson, 2012

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