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.

“Once we had words” : Colin Nun at NAC

Once we had words.
Ox and Falcon. Plow.
There was clarity.
Savage as horns uncurved.
(Stan Rice)

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
(Alice: Through The Looking Glass)

Let me impart a secret to you: I distrust and generally consider words inherently dangerous. Perhaps this is familiarity breeding contempt: language is a tool I’ve used, and employ often, and it’s something that can and does turn, like a sharp tool that cuts or a snake in your hands (no offence to snakes).

It’s appropriate I’m sharing this observation now, almost two years after I strongly alluded to this impiety on my part, in writing about a show at NAC in 2015. This was Eric Schmaltz’ The Assembly Line of Babel. Perhaps you saw the collaborative work he helped produce at In the Soil, in 2017, where his exploration of the viral nature of language took on an even more corporeal form. The video projection looked like a close up of the antibodies and blood cells at play in our own systems….not exactly what Anderson meant, but surely its mutated, like any disease, since then.

Colin Nun‘s exhibition at the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC furthers this conversation. Before I subject you to more of my words, here are his own about his “text-based paintings. His work consists of carefully constructed typographic motifs deeply rooted in graphic design…Nun’s primary objective is to paint words that convey their meaning – simply put, to use words as imagery. He challenges how ‘normal’ letters and words are represented and questions what letterforms can become if pushed to their limits…[creating] tension between the letterforms, an optical effect he calls “visual vibration”. With influences seeded in pop culture, cinema, advertising graphics and ephemera, Nun experiments how language is depicted and how the viewer perceives language.”

Nun is a Welland based artist, but also studied at the Niagara College of Applied Arts and NSCAD in Halifax (the latter is notable for the proliferation of text based, or text challenging – such as Cathy Busby or Gerald Ferguson – or text challenged – whose work might most optimistically be described as manure for other more worthwhile – artists, whom have defined NSCAD’s mixed legacy).

The works in NAC (and this has been a very good season for exhibitions in the Dennis Tourbin Space in the downtown of STC, with some excellent artists that are both new and more familiar) are varied. Some are clearly recognisable as words (Good Luck (Gold) shines forth in gold on black, reminiscent of The Price is Right or other garish, forcefully loud design) while others, if not placed in the context of the larger “sentences” would function as linear abstractions that are more drawerly and “post painterly” than text. Union, from 2017, looks like a maze or labyrinth, a snake filling a condensed space, more than writing. Other wordworks (my term for his letterforms) straddle this: Fuse, in white on blue is all chunky letters jammed down together visually mimicking a wall socket, while Void, like Union, is stretched and distended so that the variant subtleties of the image suggest a gap the viewer might step into, or be swallowed within.

Some of the wordworks / letterforms are immediate in their interpretation. Beast in white muscular letters on bright arterial red suggests something organic with its rounded corners, but still has the “loudness” of an animal’s roar, or the redblood eyes of a stalking predator. Crux and Deluxe are more complicated and play with the canvas as a picture plane, more “creative” in their typesetting arrangement. The letters in Deluxe all are held within, or contained within, a larger “D” and seem to recede from us. They’re also like part of a puzzle where we need to locate and arrange the components. Here Nun perhaps alludes to word games, where the pieces are given to us and how we assemble them creates them, or defines them, but in the end that says more about our ability to see the words, or what words we “see” than any objective “sign” (It is a theory that…It is the theory that…The language you speak determines how you think. Yes, it affects how you see everything…”)








Others are more direct (Deadringer, even “repeating” itself, so to speak), others are more obtuse, some are quite blunt and others are more bellicose, offering more of a struggle (Gemini). Silence is almost illegible, from the manner in which the word raises off the canvas in an edged serration that barely separates it from the mottled grey. This might work better as braille, if the rigid gallery space allowed us to break custom and “read” Nun’s painting tactilely, with our knowing fingers. Like glyphs carved in, or glyphs carved out, language is a marker, saying “we were here.”

Even better – this may be my favourite work at NAC – the word(s) loop. Perhaps this painting is meant as a snapshot of a reel that rolls by us, so that Silence – we see the top half of the word below the “main” rendering of it, a lower half above – is reiterated like a rolling Tibetan Prayer Wheel, worshipping without voice. Or maybe it’s that old riddle: what do you break the moment you mention it?

Although this exhibition isn’t as visually entrancing as shows that preceded it in the Dennis Tourbin Space (Adam Vollick’s landscapes capture colour like it’s a living thing, or Sheldon Rooney’s amusing scenes that suggest an Agatha Christie like mystery with complications and confabulations), the work “speaks” literally to a universal space: words, how we use them, and how they use us, with their implicit baggage that they carry, which we are sometimes aware of, and other times ignore.

We live in an age of excessive and often ignorant rhetoric: Colin Nun’s exhibition at NAC is a playful reminder of the power of words, and might be urging us to be mindful of their power and place in the larger sphere (Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict).

Colin Nun’s solo exhibition is on display at Niagara Artist Centre, at 254 St. Paul Street, in Downtown St. Catharines, until August 25th, 2017.

All images are copyright of the artist, and the uncited words in italics are from the 2016 film Arrival, based on Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Seek them both out before / after / during your visit to Colin Nun’s exhibition or his site