Joel Simpson: Geology & Surrealism [Canceled]

A 90-minute slideshow lecture including drone video

Sunday March 15, 3:30 pm – 5 pm 

Joel Simpson - White Pocket

Part 1: The Geological Inspiration of Certain Surrealist Artists

Although the term “Surreal” has become practically synonymous with “bizarre” or even merely “unusual” or “odd,” there was a demonstrable geological component to the inspiration of at least two great Surrealist painters, Salvador Dalí and his mentor, 5 years his senior, Yves Tanguy. Both had been inspired in their youth by very particular rock formations, and it’s not hard to make out their influence in their famous later work.

This past summer Joel Simpson traveled to Ploumenac’h, in Brittany, where Tanguy spent his boyhood summers, and which is famous for its Pink Granites. Simpson’s images reveal the similarities between those rocks and the “enigmatic objects” (in Surrealist leader André Breton’s bewildered phrase) in Tanguy’s paintings, whose origins and meanings stumped critics for at least 20 years after Tanguy’s death in 1955. Then Simpson shows us other examples of littoral granite—from Capo Testa in Sardinia and Campomoro in Corsica—and takes us on a brief tour of other suggestive rock formations in the Mediterranean ambit, including the Pointe de Pern on the Island of Ouessant, or Ushant, off the coast of Brittany, as well as Les Calanches, the Réserve naturalle de Scandola, and the area around Bonifacio, all in Corsica—the “granite island.”

Then he travels to the Costa Brava, where Dalí grew up, and takes us to the Cap de Creus, which Dalí referred to in his typically overwrought style, as “a catastrophe of cumuli in ruins,” or more specifically the Cap de Creus and S’Alqueria petita, a popular beach very close to Dalí’s famous home, that is flanked by extremely provocative rock formations, which he photographs up close. The Cap de Creus is today a tourist stroll, where one can see what Dalí saw, though only at a distance, but it is still quite startling.

Simpson concludes this section with rock formations he has found in his travels further afield that evoke the work of other Surrealists, such as Max Ernst and Alberto Giacometti, and Roberto Matta, as well as some Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Clyfford Still.

Part II: The Colorado Plateau: Fossilized Violence Becomes Convulsive Beauty

“Convulsive beauty” was Breton’s term of high praise. Simpson developed an appreciation for the Colorado Plateau, a geologically defined area that occupies parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, over his previous six visits there, and went for a seventh this past January, wanting to see the area, notably Bryce Canyon, with snow and ice. He was not disappointed.

The 130,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau have had a very particular geological history stretching back 1.75 billion years. First, the whole area was very close to sea level for hundreds of millions of years, undergoing alternative submersion and emergence, leaving deep accumulations of sediment. Then as a plateau, it was uplifted thousands of feet, while keeping most of the horizontal layers intact. After that, rivers and flash-flooding cut through it, creating the wide variety of canyons we see today, including the Grand Canyon, which could serve as an index to this complex history. Throughout this time, small volcanic eruptions perturbed the surface, bringing up earlier deposits of contrasting colors and twisting them around. This is what I refer to in the title to this section, and one sees it in glorious abundance at White Pocket and Coyote Buttes South. Both of these rather remote wilderness areas abound with outrageous, otherworldly formations, easily described as “convulsively beautiful,” but unlike mostly black lava fields, the twisted rock appears in brilliant reds, oranges and yellows.

Simpson and his companion spent 16 days traveling in Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, and nearby Southern Nevada (technically just outside the Colorado Plateau) in search of this convulsive beauty, and he found plenty. He visited National Parks, state parks, Bureau of Land Management land, Navajo land, as well as entirely unregistered sites, sometimes discovered unexpectedly on the side of the road. He captured his photographs with two Canon full-frame DSLRs, using five lenses, including an 8mm fisheye, and also his Mavic Pro 2 drone. He camped out in the rented 4WD truck on two freezing nights in order to catch the dusk, the brilliant winter stars, and the light of dawn. Although during the past 20 years images from the Colorado Plateau (including the famous Wave in Coyote Buttes North) have become more familiar in photographic landscape circles, Simpson’s perspectives—including aerial (with the drone), fisheye, stitched panoramas, and bedecked with ice—are often quite original. His slide show will feature his best stills along with selected drone videos.

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