03 . 02 . 18 – 14 . 03 . 18
SMAC is delighted to present Cogs of Mercy, a new solo exhibition by the acclaimed Cape Town painter Simon Stone. The exhibition marks the first-ever public display of Stone’s remarkable personal collection of sketchbooks. Started in 1982, these sketchbooks are important reference points for his figure paintings, but over the course of three decades have acquired a joyously independent quality. Cogs of Mercy further includes 20 new oil works, seven of them large-scale compositions featuring Stone’s enigmatic juxtapositions of disparate visual elements.
A new publication, titled Simon Stone: Sketchbooks 1 – 100, will be released during the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2018 to accompany the exhibition. The new book includes an essay on Stone’s sketchbooks by art critic Sean O’Toole. The essay draws on extensive interviews with the artist about his process.
View artist page: Simon Stone
“Imagination is not part of my process,” says Stone. This lack of imagination, a stubborn article of faith for the painter, prompted Stone early on in his career to find a solution to address his indecision and bewilderment in front of a blank canvas. “I had to find a way to know what I’m going to paint, a composition or an idea,” says Stone. “These books are very small ideas, hundreds and hundreds of very small ideas.”
There is a modest origin myth attached to Stone’s sketchbooks, which are stencil-numbered on their cloth spines and had reached their hundredth volume by 2016 (they now number 104). It begins in early 1980s Johannesburg, at Stone’s then Fox Street studio in Fairview. Stone recalls how he made ink sketches in bound books as well as on loose sheets of paper. But these thin, premade sketchbooks were inadequate for his outpourings, as were the loose sheets cluttering his studio.
In 1982, Stone purchased a ream of cheap newsprint from stationer CNA, which he glued together to create a 500-page flipbook, finishing it off with a cloth spine. His first entry depicted two mannequins in a shop window. For the past thirty-five years, Stone’s sketchbooks have offered him a miniaturised workspace to record primal marks and formative images. Not every sketch is a rehearsal for a painting. A sketchbook from 1993 includes many patterns for mosaic designs. But, in the main, Stone’s sketchbooks are a place where dumb persistence and not knowing are precursors to the uncertain reward of producing a visual idea that might feature – fractionally, in an adapted way – in one of his large oil paintings.
Stone’s earliest drawings were made with ink. He subsequently used gouache, occasionally conté crayon, even collage, but the dominant medium in his sketchbooks is watercolour. “I liked the fluidity of the brush,” says Stone. “I found the pencil quite static and hard, the brush was so forgiving.” The brush is obviously an implement for Stone, a thing to direct, but it also functions as a consolation, perhaps even a pragmatic philosophy. “If you concentrate on the point of the brush, things seem to happen. It’s like a meditation.”
Even though he doesn’t sketch every day, the activity has acquired a major significance in Stone’s creative process – it is where ideas are birthed. By definition, a sketch is a rough or unfinished work, and many of Stone’s earliest sketchbooks feature rudimentary compositions that were quickly and instinctively drafted. Over time, though, his approach to sketching has taken on a degree of purpose. His later sketchbooks feature many intricate and, at face value, resolved compositions. Resolution is not a goal. Being a sketchbook, failure is unavoidable. Unsuccessful images are quickly abandoned. Early on, Stone tore abortive images out of his sketchbooks. He now frowns on this earlier practice.
Stone periodically reviews his sketchbooks. Successful compositions are cross-referenced by page number in an index book, of which there are now five. His entries are matter of fact: “railway line Woodstock”, “stuffed buck under wrap”, “Joburg coming off freeway”, “girl bikini”, “falling buildings”, “glue” and “start for Rover Jackson”. The ordinariness of these descriptions is indicative of the utility the painter attaches to his sketchbooks. Stone does not regard his sketchbooks as diaries, and to view them as such is to mistake how the images they contain came about.
Some of the images in Stone’s sketchbooks originated from the operation of his unconscious mind. Others were based on photographs, some taken by Stone, a great many more cut from magazines and newspapers. Archived by type and stored in little containers in his studio, Stone’s collections of photographs include rural and urban landscapes, plants of various sorts, cosmopolitan characters (especially female) and a haphazard flotsam of art history. Sketching with an image in front of him, he says, is different to instinctively rendering whatever comes to mind. The latter action represents a kind of gracefulness, “where the mind is on the point of the brush,” while composing with a concrete reference in view denotes intentionality, in which case his concentration is “just ahead” of the brush.
Unlike his paintings, which are expressions of patient intent and purposeful mastery of his medium, the sketches contained in his archive never had to bend to his will. “They don’t have to be resolved,” says Stone of his sketches. “They don’t have to make excuses for themselves, they can be anything.” A sketchbook drawing might lend itself to being translated – or, let’s agree, absorbed – into a painting, but this is not a requirement of the labour of sketching. Images can fail, and often they do. Not every sketch has to be portable or have a life beyond its first expression. “Those are often the best drawings,” says Stone.
Sean O’Toole is a writer & editor living in Cape Town.