Simon Stone: Technicolor Telegrams

Where were you when Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster? It was a Sunday afternoon in summer, 11 February 1990, and I was having tea with Simon and Giovanna Stone in the kitchen of their house at 16 Johannes Street in Troyeville. This was the old mining house with a black tin roof that playwright Barney Simon was born in. Up the road was the ‘orrible Hotel where the CCB had plotted the assassination of Dr. David Webster the previous year.

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Down the road was the house of Sky and Michael Hart that Gandhi lived in – except he didn’t – that turned out to be another house round the corner. A real hide-and-go-seek, a bit like Simon’s paintings I had recently fallen in love with and started collecting. Some of them are here this evening.

This exhibition celebrates these hide-and-go-seek images: the perfect white china tea cup. A box of Baumann’s biscuits (empty). Suitcase and Orange. The Johannesburg pavement hawker with a mound of Chappies, an open packet of cigarettes with one extended and a lot of “what what”. A hammer. Why a hammer? “Because every man needs a hammer.”

While his mundane contemporaries were trying desperately to be misunderstood, Simon was trying desperately to be understood by painting mundane objects. His work has an almost OCD character to it. How many sinkers did you eventually paint, Simon? The same images keep occurring – the sideways glance, the skinny girl with black hair. Blobs and splodges. Tiny worms and novocaine from Dr. Crush, the dentist.

Jol is Italian and the young married couple spent some early years in Italy, in Perugia. Although Simon is impossible to pin down, his closest match for me is to Giorgio Morandi whose pale luminosity translates the mundane and banal into fine art. There was an exhibition of Morandi etchings in London earlier this year and many of my early Stones were oils painted on etching plates. Simon taught etching at Wits for a spell.

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Morandi is famous for perceptual games of hide-and-go-seek. I remember a time in Simon’s studio where he showed me a painting called “the smallest face I ever painted.” He handed me a loupe, a magnifying glass. Bob Dylan was singing Black Diamond Bay on the cassette player, suspended from a nail. Just when you thought you’d found the smallest pin head, Simon would point to an impossibly small face, grinning over his tiny shoulder.

As Scotland is flavour of the week thanks to Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph, I thought I’d rededicate the poem of Ivor Cutler to Giorgio Morandi, to Simon. With love.

A chair,
And a table,
A man sits,
elbows on the table.
An eye in his head.
In the wall,
a window,
He sees
through the window.
His foot,
in a shoe,
rests on the floor.
A bird flits by.
The white wall
is matt.
Its texture
irritates the man
as he tries
in vain
to empty his head
to let a fresh thought
fill it.
As his teeth meet
they make a soft click,
like pebbles
in the water.