To the Cathedral




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 presence.

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 each image.

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