Lee Simmonds: Into Yonderland

25 September - 31 October 2020 London

Private View: Thursday 24 September, 6:30-9pm



Dream-like, colourful figures appear in theatrical and absurd scenes, caught in an uneasy  balance between the familiar and the strange, the comedic and the uncanny. Often painted in a vibrant, fairground colour palette, the works invite the viewer into a world of illusion in which the more macabre aspects are revealed as the scene unfolds before the gaze. For his first solo exhibition Kristin Hjellegjerde London, British artist Lee Simmonds presents Into Yonderland, a playground of painting where each canvas offers a gateway into a new realm of possibility in terms of colour, content and character.


For Simmonds, the creative process typically begins with an object or a character, which a scene is then built around to create an abstract narrative that simultaneously intrigues and eludes. The abstraction involves a deliberate and often highly physical process of obscuring or blurring elements of the image either through scraping off a layer of paint and repainting over the area, dousing solvents onto the canvas and smudging with fingers, or rotating a face so that the features become warped and unfamiliar. Whilst these kinds of processes are often employed by artists as part of a more formulaic image-making technique, Simmonds describes his abstraction as a ‘serendipitous’ and tension-filled act in which the painting either tips ‘the balance into a more ironic and grotesque visual language or moves toward a sense of abstract wholeness.’


‘These paintings chart an evolution from looking at things as if from 'the auditorium' or watching a theatrical scene unfold, to grabbing hold of a camera, moving into the scene and capturing more subjective viewpoints within these imagined scenarios,’ comments Simmonds. The work entitled ‘Element Earth’, for example, which is one of four paintings that draw on the ancient alchemical elements (fire, water, air and earth), depicts an intimate interaction between two characters standing against a bubblegum pink backdrop. The green-faced character grips a trapeze swing with one hand whilst throwing up a stream of flowers onto the other character’s hands and into a growing pile on the ground. These surreal elements and the bright colours serve to divert our attention from the real, bodily fear that’s felt as the performer prepares to swing up onto the trapeze. Similarly, the painting entitled ‘Balloons in red and pink’ utilises colour to transport the viewer beyond the domestic setting into a space in which a person’s head can feel like or even, quite literally become three balloons. This hallucinatory quality creates a tension between playfulness and anxiety, allowing the viewer to engage with the image on multiple levels.


The darker paintings in the exhibition draw more directly on elements of the macabre to create a sinister atmosphere that’s both ironic and unsettling. ‘Panic Dream’, for example, depicts a family gathered around a pool of water unaware that a skeletal hand reaches out from the surface in front of them. Simmonds makes use of the classic horror story trope of a disembodied hand as a playful nod to overt theatrical language, but it functions on another level to divert the gaze from the emotional core of the painting. In the right hand corner, a figure whose face is contorted with agitation slips by almost unnoticed. Seemingly unrelated to the characters and action in the foreground, this figure’s presence is haunting and mysterious, creating narrative intrigue.


Indeed, this sense of intrigue runs throughout the exhibition as we become immersed within not just the artist’s imaginary world but also the uncanny state of painting through which images and scenes are translated from the imagination onto the canvas.  As visitors ascend the stairs into the gallery, the show’s title painting Into Yonderland visualises a window in a wall, with arrows pointing inside and red liquid oozing out, symbolising a porthole, an invitation to crawl inside an alternative universe where creativity reigns and anything is possible.