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Barbara Simcoe
Artist's Statement 2006

In one sense all visual art exhibitions are about looking back, which is the literal meaning of retrospective. Once work is done, it's installed in a gallery space and is literally in the artist's past, out of the artist's hands and beyond her/his control. Usually, however, an artist doesn't think about exhibiting art work that way. And so when I was asked to mount a retrospective exhibition for the Hillmer Gallery I was a little surprised. Was I that old that I could be in the category of artists who qualify for a retrospective? Yet, as an artist/teacher, of course, it made a lot of sense to me that such a showing of my work could provide an excellent opportunity for art students to see, in person, how an artist has developed over a 21 year time span versus through the typical slide lecture.

The logistics of figuring out what to cull out of scores of paintings and drawings I've done over the years was the first task. Another consideration was the size of the space. In addition I had the thought that the work in the exhibition would not have been shown in Omaha.

The more difficult task has been to consider what it's all been about. My own belief as an artist is that much of what I do (the art making part, that is) happens in a kind of trance, or mental zone. There is a notion that it is through the channel of a person that creativity flows and significant art making happens. In that regard, it is much like art choosing the person rather than the person choosing to be an artist. Indeed, I don't really remember ever making the decision to become a painter, I found myself being one. Another symptom, if you will, of this phenomenon can be illustrated by the many times over the years I've looked at a piece I've made and thought to myself, 'I can't remember doing that.' Of course it's not a black out kind of not remembering. It is, however, not being able to recollect being in the mental state of focus and engagement, the intensity of which can only be lived through. One remembers only traces of what happened. In that sense one main function of the art work is that it is an artifact of that process.

Of course, what I just described is only one facet of the enterprise. For an art work to have further purpose beyond the artist's experience of having made it, it must go out into the world. This is where it really becomes tricky because, as much as artists wish to have their works stand on their own, quite often some explanation is needed . . . and expected in the professional world. And so from the earliest part of a contemporary artist's activities, she/he is writing artist's statements as much to explain one's work to one's self as to the outside world periodically through the course of one's career.

So here is the question I asked myself for this exhibition in particular, because I am retracing where I have been and what I have done. Can I sum up in a few sentences what I have been about as an artist and, therefore, say something significant about all the works in this exhibition? What follows is a section from the artist's statement I have used the past couple years that I think does that.

My art works are about mediating the chaos of our culture and being a witness of this time. More and more I find myself to be at odds with contemporary life on a planet that is getting smaller and more violent by the day. For me, I work in an attempt to find centeredness and resolution in this precariously balanced world. My works are meditations on the hope that this is possible.

Meanings of my works have their sources in symbolic systems that deal with notions of intercession, healing and regeneration . . . My art works suggests narrative, but of a non-linear kind. I mean them to function as metaphors.

This exhibition has been an interesting exercise in coming to terms with what I have done as an artist. But I think the most important thing for me as I write this is that it is showing me how much more I still have to do.

Additional statements are posted around the gallery in which I discuss what I was thinking about during various periods of time.

Work from 1985 to late 1980's

1985 marks the beginning of the time when I began thinking of myself as a professional. It also marks the beginning of a strategy for pictorial development that has remained with me in one form or other to the present. That strategy consists of working from multiple photo sources using what could be characterized as a conceptual collage process.

In the 80's I collected photos from a many sources, primarily, but not exclusively from newspapers and news magazines. Then, as now, I did not often have an idea of what I was going to do. I started working by looking at photos, then selecting a small group from which to begin sketching. After familiarizing myself with the imagery, then, as now, I typically find a key image around which to construct the pictorial space. For The Late Beloved Progress, Daily Exercise in South Africa, the key image was that of the running figures that take up the left side of the drawing. It was a tiny photo from Newsweek about a riot in apartheid South Africa. During the 80's apartheid was an ongoing international crisis, regularly reported in the news. The other end of this piece has a Western looking man, smiling and looking out in the opposite direction from the running figures. Vertically below him, is a boy who looks as if he's in pain, eyes closed but facing back into the pictorial space.

The title of this piece, as in most of my pieces up to the late 1990s, is constructed from phrase fragments associated with the photographs from which I made the painting or drawing. That process also is a kind of collaging. I would write down the fragments in list form and a title would be suggested that I thought, in an interesting and usually oblique way, referenced a meaning for the piece.

The title of the 1989 painting, I Know Youre Going to Produce More Conflicting Assessments is, admittedly, odd and opaque. Which of the figures is the 'I' in the title? What is being assessed? Is conflict the subject? Is the subject of the painting giving up in the face of conflict, as the central figure in military fatigues seems to be doing with his tired affect? Why is there a figure upside down at the upper right? These are questions I pose to the audience. All my work functions this way. I am not interested in telling specific stories, though the suggestion of narrative exisits in all my work. I am interested in meaning and metaphor being revealed through contemplation.

The paintings and drawings from this time period were heavily invested in my feeling powerfully affected by the political violence in the world. I felt, and continue to feel that we are all, collectively, in some way, victims of this global violence. But why that over all else to make art work about? It was not a conscious choice; I found that this was the imagery that preoccupied me the most and with which I felt compelled to work. I began to understand what I was doing as exploring the world and my connection to it through these documentary photo fragments, detritus from the culture, and piecing together some sense of it through my art making.

Work from Early 1990's to Mid 1990's

Shifts in the way an artist thinks and feels occur without one being aware of it. I found myself gradually moving away from (but not abandoning) documentary news source material and incorporating photo fragments from other sources, the imagery of nature, art photography and film stills. At the same time I began to critique my own work in terms of formal issues. I wanted to make very specific changes in how I worked with the picture plane. This began a whole new exploration and awareness of how pictorial space is part of the vehicle for meaning. So, for example, in Young Men from Dissidence Illuminate Compromise, I deliberately opened up the space in the center and have 2 heads upside down more or less, to create a feeling of air, formally and metaphorically. Interestingly, this piece is specifically a response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern block countries of Europe. The large head at the lower left is of Vaclev Havel, then the new president of the Czech Republic.

I also became very interested beginning in the late 1980's with psychology and mythology, specifically of the ancient classical world, an interest that continues to the present. The title, A Man in a Woman Speaks Through Her Mouth refers to the Jungian notion that the anima and animus (male and female) aspects are present in all human beings. They Cannot Wash Out the Stain is about the oldest of humanity's problems, having commited the indefensible and maybe even the unforgiveable, how do we wash out the stain, how does one deal with guilt, individual or corporate? Maybe there is forgiveness, but there is always the shadow of stain. Physically it cannot be escaped. The pictorial space in this painting is a metaphor for that. There is no visual resting area in the piece. Probing Love and Hate, on the other hand, holds out greater hope for forgiveness and the healing power of love. The embracing figures show that, as does the prostrate praying figure at the bottom of the painting.

Crying Girl and Pleading Man is a painting that took two years to finish. I was at a crossroads in my life in many ways. I had worked consistently for a long time but found myself unable to move. This painting very overtly is about that. The crying girl and the pleading man in the piece are looking away from each other. The imagery above them is from a Holy Thursday reenactment rite of the washing of the feet of the apostles at the Last Supper. The angel figure behind the girl is from a tomb sculpture. Both of those suggest hope amid the chaos of emotion as does the foliage in the central space of the painting. With the darkness of mind I was feeling at that time, there was a quiet promise of regeneration.

Work from Mid 1990's to Early 2000's

Another shift the early 90's brought was in how I wanted to work with light in the pictorial space. That difference can be seen by comparing I know You're Going to Produce More Conflicting Results or Probing Love and Hate and They Cannot Wash Out the Stain. In the latter painting the attention is to what seems to be light from actual sources rather than the more ambient treatment of light in the former two.

I also became increasingly interested in the natural world, not as subject, but as setting, or background. It can be found in many of the pieces from this time frame; Narcissus and Echo, Burning the Solar King's Surrogate, Bartered Solicitude and Fresh Supplications. I also experimented quite a lot with deliberately eccentric pictorial spaces.

It is appropriate here to address the question of what concerns me as an artist more, the idea or the means? For me the answer starts with another significant question: where does idea stop and means begin? Does one come first? For that matter, why painting and drawing? Why not installation work, why not sculpture? Why not video art? All of those interest me deeply. (In fact I have another body of work,digital photography, not included in this exhibition). But I think the question of means at some point has to do with how one is wired, so to speak. I am wired primarily for two dimensional work and I am wired to work intensely with amorphous materials. Learning to master paint and drawing media has given me profound satisfaction. I enjoy that they are ancient materials that have been around for thousands of years in one form or another. I am continually intrigued by their alchemical possiblities. They are nothing on their own. They reference nothing and to make something out of nothing is a challenge. To make something out of this nothing material that has such a huge history, moreover, can be very intimidating. To this day when I start a piece I often feel as if I am starting from square one.

And so I return to the question: what have I been concerned with more, means or ideas? I will straddle the fence and say in all honesty that in my mind they are so integrated that I cannot separate them. To make an idea happen in a painting or drawing involves a totally integrative process, at least in the way I have developed. The situation mentioned above concerning light in my work, for example, was addressed by changing the way I handled paint and altering my color palette. I reconsidered how I juxtaposed imagery along with the opening of pictorial spaces. All of these were formal considerations but at the same time they had conceptual ramifications and were carriers of meaning.