Text by Zara Worth
Simon Bill’s distinctive oval canvases dominate the ground floor gallery at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Intermittently making these remarkable works over the past fifteen years, during any gaps in his career he has shrugged off the role as artist and donned a writers cap, writing many witty short stories and a novel Brains, currently available at the Baltic shop. Unsure of whether this is the right path for him he is also dabbling with a PhD in neuroscience, as you do. In fact, it is this inconsistency which defines his artistic outpourings: his iconic oval paintings only sharing their characteristic shape to make their vast differences in content and approach more blatant.
However scatty and erratic, Bill‘s paintings are far from uninformed or thoughtless. To some extent, their form provides a mechanism through which to process and meditate upon Bill’s schizophrenic regurgitation of an array of cultural signifiers. Their hanging and format, adopted by Bill in 1999, is indicative of his interests in Elizabethan and Jacobean miniature paintings and their hangings in stately homes. Their dense hanging and dim lighting, enhanced by dark grey walls, demands an almost intimate relationship with the viewer in order to focus upon one work at a time.
Bill makes plays on the presence of his influences; Hang the Kaiser (2007), proffers a pastiche of cubist painting, mocks the unmistakable moustache of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and uses the title to historically connect the subject to a Lloyd George slogan, whilst making a pun on ‘hanging’ a painting. It is almost exhausting how much Bill piles into his paintings. In both theoretical and physical terms they are almost overwhelming, yet they never feel overdone. This is perhaps due to their lack of preciousness in execution, which also results in his reception as a bit of a ‘marmite’ artist.
The works, however laden with ideas always feel fresh, despite their rather sarcastic outlook. Mostly decisions regarding media are practical and determined by what is to hand or cheaply available. Works such as Sorrow (2010) demonstrate calm and decisive action by an experienced and confident artist, rather than a mad amateur, the fact that Bill has decided to use dry spaghetti upon the revered pictorial plane is inspired and yet periphery.
The two sculptural pieces draw out one of the few recurring images in his work; Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duckrabbit. An image through which the philosopher described the difference between ‘continuous seeing’ and, ‘the dawning of an aspect’. Bill’s repeated return to this image provides a clue to his attitude, intentions, and interests in perception (also explored through his PhD). Plays on perception and use of puns ricochet across the works, connecting them, despite their seeming lack of coherence. To write-off Bill as unable to make purposeful decisions as an artist, or criticise him for his rather muddling career path would be short-sighted. More likely he is a polymath at the beginning of many endeavours, who has accidentally alienated those who don’t get the joke. But at the end of the day, it really just depends how you look at it.
Image courtsey of the BALTIC