Down Home is an idiosyncratic interpretation of place informed by my observations as an expat Tasmanian. Over the past 10 years I have travelled back and forth from Melbourne and have seen Tasmania rebranded as a cultural tourist destination, often featuring the Gothic as a dominant mode. In Down Home, traditional tourist motifs are seen through a dark and playful filter. Scenic snapshots are punctuated by a toxic green Tasmanian Devil, the skull of cannibal convict Alexander Pearce and the subverted cross of Dark MOFO, subtly shifting the holiday context. Like a souvenir, the works in this exhibition are small, gaudy, and symbolic; a holiday keepsake that explores the merging of tourism, entertainment, and place.
Simpson holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours (2012) from the University of Tasmania where he is a current Master of Fine Arts candidate. He has been a finalist in a number of Australian prizes including the Nillumbik Art Prize for Contemporary Art (2021), the John Leslie Art Prize (2020), the Bruny Island Art Prize (2016), the Bayside Acquisitive Art Prize (2016), the Agendo Art Prize (2015), and the Lloyd Rees Art Prize (2015). He was the winner of the ROI Art Prize People’s Choice Award (2019) and was highly commended in the Hornsby Art Prize (2014). His work is held in collections across Australia.
THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAILIn the titular painting for this exhibition, expatriate Tasmanian artist Josh Simpson sort of lays his cards on the table – he’s reading a book, Down Home, written by another famous Tasmania expatriate, Peter Conrad. Conrad is still an active literary critic and writer, who wrote a book about his Tasmania. Simpson is reading this with some glee, his face aglow, presumably with light that seems to be emanating from the volume he’s devouring.
It’s a striking yet subtle image – an expatriate artist reading an expatriate writer, made all the more engagingly layered by being exhibited in a gallery in Hobart. But it’s more than a witty sight gag – although it’s clearly that as well – it’s an establishment of a particular tone, pointing to the devil being in the detail. Simpson is looking at Tasmania, of course, but he’s more looking at something a bit more precise – the marketing and presentation of his home state. Simpson draws out an idea that in current times, this island is being shown as a kind of weird gothic wonderland, and that’s his point of entry. He takes imagery familiar to the strategies of tourism and marketing and plays around with them, modifying and distorting. The infamous and deliberately controversial deployment of St Peter’s Cross – you know, the upside-down one – is noted, but Simpson paints it fluorescent green and floats in front of a dark near-demonic face. It’s at once effectively creepy and slightly silly – the actual colour immediately called to mind is the high visibility clothing that’s so ubiquitous in this era. Demons at work, or a pun on being noticeable? Simpson’s work contains much potential subtlety, and the more one looks, the more there is to consider.
There’s a really strong sense of play and satire all through the show. Simpson takes a famous and familiar tourism poster from the 1950s and remakes it to say Tasmania the Horrorland; he references classic scary films and uses himself as a convenient bad guy; he titles his paintings with puns, hints and colloquialisms, subverting and lampooning all the while.
Simpson also does something really deft though: in his use of symbols we know from the branding of Tasmania, he often places stark and strong graphic images in the way of his portrayal of the actual landscape. The big sleight of hand here is that Simpson can paint, and knows how to make a dark palette work – there’s a couple of beautiful images that show a boat on a river or a cabin straining under a heavy snowfall. These beautiful works serve to underline how the others function – there’s a place behind all the postcards that has its own singular, complex beauty.
Down Home is a canny and capable show that lures you into the discussion with some engaging comedy, but takes that notion and asks how comfortable we are with all this. It’s a question well worth asking.
The Mercury, Tasweekend, Visual Arts, Saturday 31 July, 2021, p.18, illustrated Down Home, Haunting Peak, Easy Tiger and Hell’s Gates.