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Website: Chestnuts Design

Francesca Simon | Looking Down

Platform A Gallery, Middlesbrough, 4 October – 15 November 2018

A review by Annie O’Donnell

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Platform A Gallery

“I experience myself through the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience…I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.” (Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, Juhani Pallasma, 1996).

Stepping straight from a busy platform of the town’s railway station into the gallery, Platform A, is always a haptic experience, with a transformative slowing of pace, but often a quickening of pulse. That is certainly the case here, in Francesca Simon’s exhibition ‘Looking Down’, a gathering together of triptychs, paintings and drawings from the artist’s holistic and enigmatic exploration of her world.

After Campin 2, 2017. Hinged triptych, acrylic on birch ply. Courtesy of the artist and Platform A Gallery

After Campin 2, 2017 (hinged triptych on birch ply) hangs partially open on the left-hand wall of the quiet cube entrance space. This is Simon’s beautiful transcription of Robert Campin’s Merode Altarpiece, The Annunciation Triptych (1427-32). Campin’s original panels depict in turn the artist’s commissioners, the Annunciation itself, and St. Joseph alone in his carpenter’s workshop – a storyboard for the interweaving of present, past and future narratives. This starting point - this focusing down on specificities in another artist’s existing work – develops rather than erases Simon’s more frequent phenomenological ‘subconscious filtering of visual memories’, which originates in her understanding of moving through space and time.

Approaching the work sidelong, it is difficult to resist peeking behind the nearside panel to examine details of its textured geometric ground, before moving to reveal the work directly from the front. This diversion triggers thoughts of the ritualistic uses of triptychs as objects of devotion. Who would have been familiar with this particular viewpoint, or have been allowed to ‘animate’ the triptych by moving the hinged panels? The gallery’s entrance restricts the ability to move far back from After Campin 2’s frontal view, increasing a sense of intimacy, an effect that is more side chapel than high altar.

Exploring the work closely reveals the velvety smoothness of the rhomboid shapes that form what may perhaps be repetitions of interior and exterior space, abstractions of Campin’s figures, or other polyptychs, and the rhythm of their placement dances across the sanded and lined grey ground of all three panels. The rhomboids are the colour of draperies in religious paintings, of dried blood and earth.

Leaning into the wall and closing one eye, I lose myself in lining up the sections, ‘disappearing’ and revealing the central panel, only to realise a train has been announced. It passes close to the glass entrance doors in Transpennine livery, its compartments echoing and unhinging Simon’s work. A time for opening, a time for passing, a time for closing.

Pushkarni Previewed, 2018. Hinged Triptych, acrylic and masking tape on birch ply. Courtesy of the artist and Platform A Gallery

Entering the main gallery, I find my physical approach to the work here has been affected by After Campin 2, and I remember Simon’s alignment with the Brazilian Neo-Concretist artists, Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, whose manifesto stated that art was to be actively experienced through the whole body, not simply the brain. I bend sideways from the waist like a medieval Pieta sculpture, straighten again, rise onto my toes, and eventually, discovering a small stool, I use it to view another triptych, Pushkarni Previewed, 2018, from above - ‘looking down’. Balancing on the stool, with my arms far above my head, taking ‘blind’ phone photographs, I become the triangles I see on the work - (off)balanced en-pointe.

Influenced by Indian stepwells, into which people can descend and ascend for water, the triangles of Pushkarni Previewed are stacked, stair-like, on a painted ground that resembles both brickwork and repeated tree rings. Again, the evocation of time is deep. Colour here resembles that of the exhibition site, a space often filled with both bright light and heavy shadow, due to its south-facing windows.

Lateran 1, 2016. Hinged triptych, acrylic on birch ply. Courtesy of the artist and Platform A Gallery

From my precarious perch, and more safely from the floor, I similarly study the final triptych, Lateran 1, 2016, which responds to the highly complicated marble and stone floors of the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome. Simon talks of her awareness of where she places her feet when walking, and of looking down at the floor in perspective. Step on a crack, break your back. While musing on the idea of the horizontal now made vertical, I close the side panels of the work, touch connects with thinking, and the triptych suddenly suggests the shutters of a casement window, which could be thrown back again to reveal the complex patterns of a Gio Ponti interior in Sorrento, Tehran or Caracas through the gallery wall - or a portal:

“…for different cities that could have been and were not” (Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino, 1972)

Twelve Drawings in the Lateran and Cosmati series 2017-18 (pigment marker and liner pen on gerprint and card) which both inform Lateran 1 and exist as gems in their own right, are hung in grid formation on the far side of the gallery. The black, white and red lines, tracing circles within circles, mutating triangles into diamonds, and shrinking and growing the scale of rhomboids, are drawn both on and under gerprint, mistily distancing the grey card, and mirroring the wiring on the gallery’s concrete ceiling. Individual drawings are repeated, with colours reversed, pairings that call to each other across the grid, while others remain in splendid solitude.

The original Lateran and Cosmati floors did of course strongly influence those in other places, their transposition signalling the status of their commissioners to those ‘in the know’, while remaining unique to those who were not. Here, on Teesside, with its fantastical post-industrial landscape which is absorbed into the identity of the inhabitants, it is difficult not to read the drawings as piping diagrams for possible petrochemical or biomass plants. Potential futures from past geometry.

Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Platform A Gallery

The two largest paintings in ‘Looking Down’, Ghosting and Ghost Logic, both 2018, are of a scale (150 x 100cms) that speaks of interruptions to bodily navigating the exhibition site, and of future lines of inquiry. The diamond and kite-shaped rhomboids are recognisable from smaller works, but here they seem in danger of spilling out into the gallery, encouraging me to travel around between Platform A’s steel girders in a pre-destined Harlequinade path. If Simon’s triptychs connected to Lygia Clark’s ‘modulated surfaces’, the hinged Biches that could be acted on over time, and similarly to Helio Oiticica’s Bolides, then the paintings relate more closely the latter’s larger three-dimensional Penetrables, and I imagine moving through the shadowy twin rectangles of the paintings, entering or exiting other veiled spaces, pulling behind me the long shadows that fall across them at certain times of day.

‘Looking Down’ powerfully emphasises the miniature and the monumental, the local and the global, and the eye and the body. The railway platform closest to the doors of Platform A does not offer a view of train arrivals there, merely departures, and this can perhaps be seen as a metaphor for Francesca Simon’s constant moving, adjusting, and searching within her practice - her insistence that there is more to be explored.

“…your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced…Between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory.” (Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino, 1972)

The Looking Down catalogue (pdf file) is introduced by Andrew Bick and includes an essay by Laurence Noga.