The artist’s hand is evident from the moment you walk into BUSTER SIMPSON // SURVEYOR, the first comprehensive survey of the Seattle-based artist’s forty-year career, now on view at the Frye Museum of Art. Simpson has chiseled the exhibition title’s two parallel lines into the gallery wall (on which the rest of the title is painted), like a giant trail marker or series of bite marks. The resulting debris has been left on the floor below.
It is a fitting opening gesture for an exhibition in which Simpson is less passive subject than instigator and agent. The pieces collected here—from documentation of agitprop actions and installation-based pieces to sculptures made from reclaimed materials—make clear he views these roles as endemic to being an artist. There is a workmanlike quality to Simpson’s approach, something underscored by SURVEYOR’s hand-drafted wall texts (which a local sign maker was commissioned to execute) and reflected in his preference to describe his output simply as “projects.”
“Interventions” could just as easily apply. At a very basic level, Simpson’s modus operandi is to assess and frequently redress human impact on local ecosystems, in both an environmental sense but also in a more expanded capacity that encompasses habitats, neighborhoods, industries, and histories, in particular those local to the Pacific Northwest. Simpson’s logic often follows that of environmental law expert Douglas P. Wheeler’s recommendation that “[t]o halt the decline of an ecosystem, it is necessary to think like an ecosystem.”
Many of the pieces in SURVEYOR present themselves as solutions, both aesthetic and practical, to such decline. Double Header Finial (2013), the midcentury modern–looking brass sculpture covered in protuberances, answers the question of how to increase crow populations in urban habitats (provide more pole-top perches). The broken limestone disc on display is a remnant from the action Hudson River Purge (1983–91), in which Simpson threw similar stones into the Hudson’s headwaters to help neutralize acidity caused by pollution. Ph Indicator Umbrella (2013) uses a common household object to raise awareness of the same issue but from the other side of the condensation cycle.
Other projects utilize processes as solutions. Failing to save a sixty-year-old cherry tree slated for demolition as part of a condominium development after physically occupying it in a crow’s nest constructed of materials from the construction site in 1979, Simpson carved a ladder from the felled “witness to history” six years later to use to climb into the next tree that was threatened. Both the ladder and photo-documentation of the original occupation are on display. (It’s telling that clips of Simpson in various city council meetings are mixed into the home movies and studio footage that loop on three wall-mounted flatscreens; working within bureaucratic channels frequently has its place in his process as well, even if the resulting project takes a critical stance toward institutional decision making).
Simpson is also not afraid of the occasional grand gesture. In the 1983 performance Projecting Limestone Purge, a naked Simpson hurled pieces of limestone engraved with the word “purge” at the World Trade Center. The video transfer of the original 8mm documentation of the piece drives home the inevitable David and Goliath imagery even more—the twin towers loom at a distance from Simpson’s volleys, making his efforts appear all the more dogged. This scale is reversed in SURVEYOR’s final room, which collects what Simpson calls his Tools of Poetic Utility (1973–present), Brobdingnagian versions of a craftsman’s basics—a plumb, a level, a grinding wheel— sculpted in glass, steel, and stone. Beautiful and fragile as they are, they are still functional if no longer utilitarian. No mere trophies to artistic hubris, they are reminders that there are still solutions that need finding and alternatives to propose. There is still work to be done, and not by Simpson’s hands alone.
BUSTER SIMPSON // SURVEYOR is on view at the Frye Museum of Art, in Seattle, through October 13, 2013.