Simon Bill’s second solo at Patrick Painter was titled “Buttercups and Daisies,” but “Chalk and Cheese” would have been truer to the artist’s approach. This generation-YBA painter, established in Britain but little known in the States, has no use for signature, be it signature style, subject, medium or palette. He works with pattern, relief, hard-edge abstraction and all manner of figuration, as the fancy evidently moves him. Back in the 1990s, Bill did aggressively nasty, tasteless paintings using imagery nicked from lowbrow culture. Time has mellowed him, but his work is still oddly unsettling and, by careerist standards, perverse in its insistence on the formal autonomy of each painting. (A 2002 solo exhibition in Britain was titled “Three Painters: Simon Bill.”)
The constant is Bill’s distinctive support: an oval panel, 50 by 38¼ by 2 inches, made of slabs of styrofoam faced and backed with thin sheets of plywood or MDF. This surface material is sometimes visible in the finished painting, as in A Good Idea (1999), in which it is stained with marine varnish to a lovely amber and drilled full of holes in looping, roughly concentric rings. The bravado touch of Grizedale Beast (2000), with its blue-black, rococo phallus arching across a ruddy ground, demonstrates that Bill knows how to wield a fat brush. A precisely painted, multicolored houndstooth pattern rakes across the surface of Crispy (2009); a glob of expanding foam mixed with bits of wood and hair is the main attraction in Eyebrow (2000); from out of left field appears a funky platform-heel boot in White Rabbit (2007), painted so as to recall the enormous, scenery-stomping foot at the end of the intro to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
In fact, the show might also have been called “And Now For Something Completely Different.” These are the paintings of a skeptic who embraces pictorial inventiveness for its own sake. The self-consciousness of such a tactic would be annoying if the results were not so interesting. Beyond the sheer enjoyment of witnessing this artist exercise a dazzling array of expressive options is the creeping suspicion that he considers their possible mastery a delusion. If anything, Bill revels in painting’s fundamental inadequacy—its sorry striving—which makes it, as a form, uniquely suited to express the will to meaning. Which is such a laugh, really.
Photo: Simon Bill: Grizedale Beast, 2000, oil on plywood, 50 by 381⁄4 inches; at Patrick Painter.