Artist Feature: J.E. Simpson

There is a phrase – it can’t properly be called a sentence – that kept arising in conversation with Jonathan (J.E.) Simpson when I visited his studio, several weeks after seeing his work at Niagara Artist Centre: contradiction / conjunction / intersection / interpretation. If you’re familiar with his sculptural works – or his “printed” derivations of the same, and I’ll elaborate on that in a moment – this may seem like a “sentence” from his “writings” or an excerpt from one of his “texts.”

Simpson’s practice is both process based but aesthetically seductive. One sculpture, If A Tree Falls (which doubles as a “press”, as he takes rubbings off of it) that dominates part of his studio is a chunk of driftwood that he’s “etched” what he sometimes calls a continuous sentence, or is a ‘stream of consciousness’ text. This was done using a weighted hammer and bits like you’d see in a printing press, suggesting a process both physically industrial but also nostalgic to archival print methods.

Its amusing that with works that, although lovely objects, so dependant on text, I find myself thinking I shouldn’t call it ‘sculpture’ as its also a ‘print’, or refer to it as a static object, as one work is the means by which he makes others (rubbing fine paper on the imprinted text word letters to get rubbings, like variable editions and impressions of the object, extending his artwork’s ‘reality’ into new spheres. A footprint is to shoe as these rubbings are to the words / works…).

Our conversations about his art have been intensely enjoyable: “Performativity and gesture are central to my work. It begins as a seed germinating in my mind, and through my labour is reified in a seemingly mundane trope: that of letters carved onto a tree.” Or another concise observation: “J. E. Simpson is an artist at the intersection of writing and sculpting. Working with fallen and found tree trunks and branches, he blankets their wooden surfaces with text, building narratives using automatic free flowing and collage writing processes.”

Dream Log is reminiscent of a torso: the chunk of wood is wider at top than below, and in behind is a bit of decay and you can peer or poke inside. While visiting Simpson’s studio, he graciously allowed me to handle his work, and the texture of the wood itself is as inviting as the desire to trace the delicate inscribed letters. At that time, Dream Log was mounted on a stand so it was slightly “taller” than I. It seemed I might be grasping it by his her their hips as a prelude to a dance, which is an amusing and positive manner to talk about the artist / art object / art critic relationship….

Up, Down, Strange, Charm, Bottom and Top is thinner and longer: and with some of his works, Simpson has employed them in performances and the words become worn down, eroded (echoing another aspect of the trees themselves) and become texture rather than signage, indexical evidence of a faded and forgotten thought.

Returning to contradiction / conjunction / intersection / interpretation: Simpson’s employ of language / text with all its cultural baggage and primacy in engaging with art offers multiple means by which to understand his works. Or to quote our conversation, to help use the pieces to define our reality. A smaller work, Prometheus Unbound, is formally different from other pieces and explores this idea.

This may sound pretentious, but consider images and books and authors and phrases that we cite as our favourites, and that how “possessing” these helps define us. These are often rife with personal memories, anchoring us. An interesting aside with Simpson was where he talked about “not having access to the full stories” anymore, on Dream Log, for example, as he “wrote” etched notched scotched chiseled them and they’ve “become” something else. Memory, in the 21st century, is even more informed / deformed by Susan Sontag’s assertion that we rely an image to remember, and may lose the memory without such external “placeholders.” Simpson’s Dream Log is like that: in that manner it transcends an “art object” and becomes a landmark of memory or experience. To return to a book as a comparison: not only is having a treasured book to reread a spur of reflection and memory for the reader, but it also is / was / will be (forgive my German slamming of words together in this article, but its influenced by Simpson’s similar use of language) for the originating author. My favourite author, Mordecai Richler, often blended occurrences and interpretation, fact and fiction.

More contradiction: that objects so aesthetically alluring offer excellent springboards for debates about authorship vs. interpretation, or how important it is (or isn’t) to the artist or the “viewer” to fully understand what was intended. Intention is a collaborative venture that changes whether I’m running my fingers over the raw elegance of Dream Log or if the piece “changes” to accommodate or challenge another visitor.


Simpson attended OCAD, and now lives in Niagara. He exhibited some of these pieces (and the paper works that he frottaged from the woodworks, which led to charcoal getting on people’s hands and the works spreading even further, with a wider group, from mark to rubbing to smears to smudge) at NAC in the members space this past winter. You can see more here.