Essays: Trickster


“Every angel is terrifying” – Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies
“Do many little boys think they are a Monster” – Anne Carson, The Autobiography of Red

We are each of us lost in this troubled present trying to figure out what faith it takes to be found. In these millennial years, the earth has cracked open to new forms and old fears, and the human order has become supplicant to both terror and technology. Every day the world feels like it’s burning evermore to black. Years are pulled forward by a torrent of expectations and exhortations and we can barely get our footing for what is right and good in our lives. We seek prophets and prophecies, some clear vision or pious calling to help us sort through all the demands and distortions, all the false truths and wicked faiths.

It’s a helter-skelter time and G. Elliott Simpson prefers it that way. He’s made a cult of it.

The photo-based images of Toronto artist G. Elliott Simpson are the visual manifestation of his spiritual journey through this bent time. Simpson is on a pilgrimage through the borderlands of desire, through all the dark caverns and private sanctuaries of his personal faith where figures emerge from the murk in sculptural form, shaped by longing as much as any deviance. His models are both angels and monsters, both among the living and the dead, or in flux between the two; and it is Simpson himself – the artist as manipulator – who acts as a Trickster here, “as the conveyor of souls across ultimate boundaries” which is how the American author Michael Chabon describes such a figure. Simpson splits his own self-image, making him both watcher and watched, both perpetrator and witness.

Childhood beginnings are often as deceptive as the artists they nurture. For his part, Simpson was raised on a working class farm lost out in the rough stretches of rural Ontario. His parents were observant Anglicans, a religion with old English thunder but little dramatic lightning. Simpson sought something more than a plain faith; instead, he took an early interest in myth, the occult, and the futurist science-fiction of William Gibson before gravitating to the novels of author, Robertson Davies – master of gothic illusions and characters twice born.

Once he moved to Toronto, a short drive but a big psychological jump away, Simpson set about remaking his identity by testing his limits. He explored the outer margins of his sexuality and tried to sate his carnal appetite as much as his creative one. At the University of Toronto, he studied Jung and saw in his archetypes a commonwealth of interesting characters that he could make his own. Now all those high-school locker-jocks existed more in shadow than in phantasy. Freed of earlier constraints, Simpson began to explore his incipient creativity, mostly graphic design but also photography – though he kept his curiosity within the confines of banal concerns. Only the shock of a health crisis saved him for a fully creative life.

In 2003, Simpson fell into a coma and his world went dark. In the days leading up to his fully reawakening, the doctors would wake him intermittantly in order to ease him back to full consciousness… and in that drugged fog of semi-psychotic consciousness, recalled as a lucid dream, he stood as if a host at the head of a procession of uninvited guests, each trying to pass him a furtive message, some low note of doom or dread. Such is what he drew from the experience as reality blurred and his imagination bloomed. While his dream-self communed with saints and psycho-killers and cybernetic nuns, his corporeal self was hooked up to tubes and respirators and life-saving machines. Through this extended moment he was of the past and the future and existed but for the blink of a light.

Simpson’s series of photo-based images called STATE began to take shape as he began putting himself back together. Having had his life divided in two, he was interested in exploring the dualistic nature of all selves: not only how sinners become saints and legends are made of mortal men but how all personalities can be split in two. In Simpson’s images, no one is entirely as they appear and their darkness is revealed only with light. The work is cunning even more than it is erotically charged, a feint that Simpson intends but the viewer doesn’t see coming. We don’t expect these images to stay in our head and yet they have that habit, that tenacious, archetypal allure.

Simpson’s work is backed up by a chorus of literary and art history boys. Goya stands out for Simpson because of his Black Paintings which bristle with dark warnings. And Caravaggio shows his influence in Simpson’s theatrical staging – so often sharpened by deeply shadowed light. Of course, Caravaggio was also skilled at turning hustlers into holy men and sinners into saints. His David was a pouting tavern boy and his Madonna a village prostitute. He shocked by lacing his sacred stories with profanity. Simpson strives to be so cocksure or certainly as liberated. Finally there are several literary references in the images that Simpson intends; in these grotesque figures Simpson finds his Heathcliff and Peter Quint, so many stock romantic anti-heroes: bruised and brooding; mad, bad, and dangerous. And yet still, the mythology that Simpson is making is very much his own.

G. Elliott Simpson’s process begins with a casting call and ends with theatre. He selects his subjects from among the many aspiring models available online: a digital, oddly unsettling yet vacantly honest version of a meat market. Nearly everyone is a hustler these days. The decision to paint most of his models in black grease is a nod to a traditional event in Mexico known as Los Pintados. In that case, male villagers cover themselves in oil and ash during the festival of Lent to ward off evil spirits. Rituals often allow opposites to come together for some spiritual aim. In the case of Los Pintados, purification is allowed through corruption of the social order. The skeletal graffiti is a distorted reference to Day of the Dead rituals, where death is embraced by the living.

Simpson further distorts his figures with latex costumes which act as a second skin, an alternate self. The guys then get geared up with masks, tubes, respirators or other more rudimentary devices. Finally, the models are posed to command attention while remaining subservient to Simpson’s other aims. They are both lords and deacons, both master and servant. These figures exist “in purgatorio”, halfway between here and there.

G. Elliott Simpson was christened Geoffrey by his parents after their church’s reverend. He later learned the name means “peace maker” which seems an apt choice; he who reconciles opposites to achieve a greater good – and while Simpson’s work is deceptively dark, filled with omens from the past and warnings for the future, it is also beautiful and quaking with light. It is useful to close with more of Rilke –

And being dead is hard work and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel a trace of eternity. Though the living are wrong to believe in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created. Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living they are moving among, or the dead.