Simon Stone: The Diversity Triptych

10 Nov 2017

In 1979, a young and restless Simon Stone set off for Italy. The previous year, he had completed his art studies at Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, where he spent five years of constructive creative and artistic development as a student under Stanley Pinker. His fellow students were Marlene Dumas, Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and Giovanna Biallo – his muse whom he also then just married.

Stone, with Biallo, settled in Milan where they spent a year studying Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque Art in Brera, the bohemian district of the city that houses the Brera Academy of Fine Arts and the Brera Art Gallery. The time spent observing the work of these ‘great masters’ would have a profound impact on his own production. The classical techniques like linear foreshortening remain evident in his paintings and many mosaic works. And while Stone fosters a deep appreciation for proportion, balance and ‘ideal beauty’, he would simultaneously exaggerate these qualities which often result in subject formations and compositional arrangements that are asymmetrical or unnaturally elegant.

It can be assumed that it was Italy that exposed Stone to mosaic, or that it was during this time that he developed an interest and trained his skill in this intricate art form. But Stone debunks this notion stating that “it is a pity” they never even visited Ravenna, the city renowned for the mosaics adorning many of its central buildings, like the octagonal Basilica di.

It was to be twenty years later in 1990, in Troyville, Johannesburg, while staring from his kitchen window at an “ugly” brick wall, that Stone first took inspiration to create a mosaic work. Finding many of the public art murals at the time “quite uninspiring”, Stone started producing mosaics mainly as public and private commissions. One of his first was for fashion designer Marianne Fassler and later for artist William Kentridge. Today, Stone’s public mosaics includes a mural in the foyer of the SABC head offices, the entrance to the office of a mining conglomerate, the fountain in the Hyde Park centre and the obelisk at the Illovo Boulevard.

The Diversity Triptych is an impressive large scale work, made between 1994 and 1995 for a site-specific commission. This is the only free standing mosaic that Stone ever produced. In a composition which references the religious altarpieces of 13th century Europe, he divided the pictorial narrative into three parts, like a three act play. Each panel is a unique and captivating allegory. Herein lies the magic of this work – like Stone’s paintings, it charms the viewer in attempting to decode the artist’s iconographical repertoire.

Stone asserts that the layout and planning of his mosaics in general are “design-orientated” and the practical process “very logical”, yet his conceptual approach in creating ‘split-screen’ scenes and collage-like compositions of different objects in puzzling juxtapositions is evident in The Diversity Triptych.  The work shows the hand of a technical master, each individual tessera perfectly shaped and placed in an immaculate arrangement on the picture plane.

The right-hand panel introduces the first act of The Diversity Triptych drama. The scene is set in down town Johannesburg. In center stage is a young woman selling fruit. Squeezed into the foreground is a “block-head” character – a familiar figure that often appears in different guises in Stone’s work. Here, the character alludes to a shoemaker who Stone once encountered on the street, but he is rendered a ghost like figure, his appearance taking on the shape of the city buildings. “He looks that way because he is spending too much time in the city” explains Stone, compassionately alluding to the masses of anonymous people whose daily existence has become synonymous with the cityscape. To the left of the picture plane, Stone inserted a strip of six blocks, in each he shelved a luxury product (a perfume bottle, a ladies high-heel shoe, a jewelry box, a leather handbag and a picture card) – the façade of consumerism than seemingly supports self-actualization in this fast-paced city.

Act two is a pin-board composition of various elements arranged on a flat multi-coloured plane that immediately presents the theme; the nine to five working life inside the walls of the city buildings. Two white-collar workers are positioned in the center, literally in cubicles. It is an administrative setting with calculating devices; a pocket calculator and a desktop computer streaming numbers (and numbers equals money). To the right, Stone once again placed a strip of blocks, mirroring that of act one, and to each block he allocated a signifying object: a paperclip for holding documents together; a clock for telling time (and time is money); a dry core bit for drilling thought tough situations; a vase with a plant for life, and a key. Apart from Stone’s adoration of the shape and style of this “very cool” key, it may suggest security – and work and money is security.

A picture of a friendly little ‘spirit’ figure (another familiar character often appearing in Stone’s works) lures the viewer to leave the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg city, for an imaginative place of quiet contemplation. Stone introduces the main character in this final and third act as “a Greek philosopher of sort”, leaning through a windowed arch and holding a book of knowledge. He explains that “this is where one goes to get away, away from the office – out of the city, to go somewhere to escape, maybe find yourself. I like to go to the country side”. An inset picture of the Namibian coastline floats at the bottom of the composition, which is balanced by the image of an addressed and stamped envelope at the top. An envelope is commonly associated with sending some form of written correspondence, mostly of a personal nature, when one is far away. Stone cleverly uses this sign to evoke a feeling of nostalgia, concluding the mystery of this work’s narrative at a contemplative and open-ended moment.

– Marelize van Zyl

Sources

Pollak, L. 2013. Simon Stone. Collected Works. Cape Town: Smac Gallery

Personal interview with Simon Stone, 8 September 2017

Telephonic interview with Simon Stone 22 September 2017