by Shirle Gottlieb
(Peter Blake Gallery, Orange County) Like Jim Morphesis before him, Duncan Simcoe has ceased to cloak his religious devotion in oblique metaphors and now expresses the depth of his inner convictions more openly. Since 1989, he has occupied himself with an ongoing series of narrative paintings based on the story of Abraham and Ishmael in the Book of Genesis. Ishmael was the elder half-brother of Isaac whose mother, Hagar, was the house servant of the patriarch and his wife, Sarah. In an accepted ancient form of surrogate parenting, Abraham's relation with Hagar came at Sarah's request. But the arrogance of the new mother later prompted Sarah to demand the expulsion of both mother and young son. In the Bible God assures the distraught Abraham that he need not worry, the boy will survive to father a second people.
Viewing Ishmael as "the Other"--a scorned, universal outcast abandoned by the dominant canon--Simcoe originally portrayed him as an African American male forced to wander the inner-city (instead of the desert) in his struggle for survival. In this current series, Ishmael Dreams, the artist transports his protagonist back to the Civil War where the perennial "Outsider" bears witness to the death and destruction (both physical and spiritual) that racked our country and turned brother against brother.
The twenty assorted works here are not an easy study. In order to enter Ishmael's dreams, you must activate what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith" and accept Simcoe's one-legged black statue as Ishmael's spirit, persona, eternal presence. . .call it what you will.
Sometimes standing on a bluff overlooking smoldering ships, sometimes looming like a specter far off on the horizon, sometimes abandoned on the battle field or surrounded by broken bodies, sometimes surrounded by white light in an ethereal haze, this repeated haunting symbol stands apart from the relentless havoc and silently, stoically, observes the tragedy of it all.
It's important to know something of what informs Simcoe's visual thinking. Portions of these paintings are appropriated from color plates in The Golden Book of the Civic War--an American Heritage Library text that the artist has cherished since his childhood in the 1960s. He pays homage to the spatial abstraction, flattened planes, and distorted landscapes of Richard Diebenkorn. Then there is the intensely painful poetry that Simcoe composed to accompany this body of work. Finally, the artist acknowledges a deep affection for 'Byzantine art as well as a newfound affinity for the Greek Orthodox Church.
That having been said, you have only to enter the gallery and allow the soulful dreams of the alienated son of Abraham and Hagar surround and wash over you.
The sins of racial prejudice and social injustice have existed throughout history. Today "Ishmael" continues to wander through the desert of time in search of acceptance, justice and redemption. His dreams--as channeled through the creative imagination and spiritual devotion of one contemporary, Caucasian, Orange County artist--are revealed and recorded on canvas as one man's act of faith.