Simon Parish visited me shortly after he was awarded the Durham
Cathedral residency and I was struck by the way he regarded it with a
sense of awe and responsibility. He had a great desire to prove
worthy of what he saw as a considerable challenge and opportunity.
He brought to the experience many years of travelling to places like
Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey, with an extensive period of work in Japan, as well as completing his postgraduate studies with an MFA
at the Slade School of Fine Art.
On closer examination we discover that Simon's source material
gleaned from his travels has little to do with the architectural glories
or the cultural divides of the places he visited. The things that
engage his interest seem to be in the gaps left by the concerns of
others. They are discarded, the unconscious wasteland of
experience that appear everywhere - no matter which country he is
exploring. There are numerous layers of meaning in his chosen
places, people and things, mirroring at times his own experiences of
sadness, aloneness and their salutary richness.
Despite his choice of subject which offers much visual nourishment,
he made clear to me that he works always 'to be a mirror or transparency
to the flow of an idea'; but at the same time he is highly selective
about what he uses so that the simple things can resonate.
He loves the strange juxtaposition of human flotsam; the used,
discarded or abandoned objects and places left by humanity that evoke or
provoke endless speculation upon their recent histories.
Simon's journey to Durham continued long after he physically
arrived. Confronted with the awesome grandeur of the Cathedral,
the tranquillity of it's Close, the traditions of the University, the
radical building programmes that have transformed the character and
appearance of the City together with the social and economic upheaval
confronting the outlying villages and communities around Durham, left
him with intimacies and alienations to explore and may be reconciled on
a number of levels.
The exhibition goes some considerable way toward making that
clear. The number of paintings related to movement, travel,
transportation and approaching views are testament to that concern just
as the portraits of buildings echo his engagement with the Cathedral's
The dignity and grandeur which he bestows the subject of
'Semi-detached (Pity Me)' and 'Plaza' expose the paintings to numerous layers of
meaning. In 'Semi-detached (Pity Me)' I am reminded of the 'Burial of
Ormans' where Courbet elevates the burial of a simple peasant by
painting the event in the 'Grand Manner' - in the manner of the then
popular history painting of the day. The traditions and history of
French paintings were much in the mind of Courbet and vital to a full
understanding of his 'Burial' when he painted it. In the same way
in this exhibition it is vital that we understand how much the Cathedral
is in Simon's consciousness when painting 'Semi-detached (Pity Me)' or 'Plaza'
with all that he can reveal and enjoin in us.
As an aside 'Semi-detached (Pity Me)' may amongst all else be a
cry of his own, confronted with what he always regarded as an awesome
task - to say something about the Cathedral. In 'Truck' the
Cathedral is barely visible on a distant horizon - something we appear
to be travelling towards; in 'Wasteland' again it is obscured by a
complex of lines and shapes that provide a visual barrier to our view of
it. In a relatively small painting where the Cathedral is central
as the subject of the work - it is obscured by a figure.
Simon relentlessly continues his journey in various associations
with figures walking, 'Sportswear', 'Orientation' - a map of the
immediate area and 'Row', University students rowing down the
Wear. Even 'Waiting for the Night Train' with its night lighting
doubling as a cross adds an alternative meaning to his observed fact
related to travel.
But when we almost give up expecting any direct response to his
'muse' he pours it all into one glorious large scale painting of an arch
- sweeping over our heads in 'Under the Bridge'. Here he tells
much of what he feels about that amazing cathedral building in the way
of his own gift. In an environment more familiar to him and in the
world in which we now all live.
Just as the 'The Bridge' celebrates the Cathedral, the delightful
and intimate series of small paintings of 'prayer books' - painted
consistently throughout the year - echo the office block or high rise
paintings which are almost a trade mark for Simon; their individual
intimacy reveal an ever changing quality of light and colour and create
a wonderful grid-like pattern that throws up many subtle differences in
In Simon Parish's work there are many messages and layers of
meaning; much about himself in his regard for his subject and an endless
curiosity about his visual experiences all expressed in a soft focus
figuration that somehow embraces irony, humour, sadness and compassion
in its understated mark making.
© Peter Hicks