Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Interview With Joel Simpson (2)

E.G. Do you like cinema as well?

J.S: Of course! I love movies the way I love novels. Certain films (by Fellini, Bergman, Robbe-Grillet, Truffaut, Altman) have profoundly influenced me, going right to my concept of reality, of memory, of human relations and the human mind. Films can address extremely important issues with an immediacy and power unmatched by any other art— that is its strong point, in contrast to the drama, which is better adapted to address the complexities and ironies of human relations, and of course there’s a considerable overlap.

And a very particular relationship between still photography and cinema has grown up as a sub-genre. If the cinema presents a concentrated version of life, then a photograph that purports to be a still from a movie—as Cindy Sherman demonstrated early in her career—offers a distillation of that concentration, redolent with implications.

E.G. Tell us something about your days as a composer and jazz pianist.

J.S: I seem to always like spending most of my time on that which gives me the most pleasure, then worry about making a living afterwards. Listing to good, juicy, rich, heartfelt, complex jazz put me into such a state of pleasure I had to learn how to do it myself. So after having been a mediocre pianist since childhood, I began to apply myself seriously to it when I was 31. I spent 22 years at it and actually became fairly good, though I was no prodigy. I could play in a way that moved others and satisfied myself, though I always wanted to be better and was in awe of many great artists in the field. I realized that improvising is like the experience of an orgasm that lasts as long as you want it to. You’re in an altered state, in touch with eternity or whatever you want to call that reality that’s different from your daily, ordinary one where you pay the bills and take out the garbage. Listening is almost as good as playing, but not quite. The difference is 10 to 20 years of study, and this is what I did. At the end I realized I would never be able to make a living at it, and playing publicly became very repetitious, especially in New Orleans, where bread-and-butter live music was mostly a series of clichés. So I moved back north, where I returned to college teaching for six years before becoming a full-time photographer. My “goodbye gift” to jazz paino was a multi-media encyclopedic CD-ROM I produced with the great multi-stylist Dick Hyman. It definitively recorded the breadth of his imitative genius, a very special province in the world of art, which James Joyce, Proust, Raymond Queneaux, and more writers that you might think have practiced—to great effect. It was called Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano. It was well reviewed in the general and music press and sold worldwide, but I didn’t get rich on it.

E.G. Nature, eroticism, politics, and pop culture are the main subjects of your interest. Do you see any relation between them?

J.S: I would say that these fall into two separate domains for me.

On one hand, nature and eroticism meet in my art in the domain of shared forms. I project natural forms onto the female body, and these forms seem to suggest unseen vectors of energy and passion when projected, even more explicitly than they do in the straight images, say of ice, lava or any other rock or wood formation.

On the other hand, politics and folk culture (as distinguished from commercial pop culture, which interests me very little) both demand a sensitive photojournalistic approach to capture their most significant and revealing moments.

E.G. Define eroticism and your erotic art…

J.S: Eroticism is the celebration of the most joyous force of existence. Clearly the most successful species are those for whom eroticism is the most pervasive in their lives, and as Freud pointed out, it’s everywhere, in various displaced or sublimated forms. It certainly is very powerful in art, and I’m not just referring to work that is explicitly about sexual desire.

The case of architecture is instructive. The most efficient use of gravity in construction uses the most rectilinear forms. Yet curvilinear forms are recognized as erotic in architectural theory today, probably because they contravene the norm. If you apply this notion to artistic form in general, then eroticism is everywhere outside of Mondrian, although people don’t necessarily recognize it as such.

As for my erotic art, I think my work with couples is the most frankly erotic of all my work. I—and most men, and many women—find the contemplation of a woman’s body by itself to be erotic, and if not explicitly so, then beautiful. And by the way, prehistoric art teaches us to regard very ample female bodies as fascinating and beautiful. These large body types predominate in Paleolithic art, especially in the little statuettes, of which the Venus of Willendorf is only the most famous. I have thought that the rock or wood overlay, the projection, serves as a screen to make the eroticism of the naked bodies I photograph less explicit, and therefore more powerful. They remove these bodies from the domain of possible pornography—they’re not particularly turn-ons, but they’re (I hope) no less fascinating for that. I hope they express a more universal version of the subject—idealized perhaps—and one that requires the viewer to leap over millennia (even if virtual ones) to make that identification. If this expands one’s historical imagination, then I’ve succeeded at another of my goals.

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