In the world of photographer G Elliott Simpson, the male figure is moulded into a dark and almost devilish presence. A slick sheen or an ashen veneer coats muscled flesh. Each model’s face and body is lost and identity is transformed and obscured.
It’s no surprise that Simpson’s work explores the darker side of human nature. In his youth, he faked his own death at school to freak out his teachers and read books about the occult. Post-university, Simpson worked as a graphic designer and dabbled in photography — until a life-changing “accident” in 2003.
“I think they call it misadventure,” Simpson says, laughing, as he
remembers the fast living that eventually left him in a coma. “It was hard partying, drugs, sex, and rock and roll — self-inflicted. I don’t relate to it at all anymore because I’ve changed so much since that event. I’m married now and kind of a recluse." After two years of rehab, Simpson needed a hobby beyond taking snapshots of his cat. What started as a little diversion soon became his artistic focus, and he’s now preparing to launch his first major solo gallery show, Brotherhood
The models featured in his photographs have a delectably macabre quality, complemented by layers of paint, latex and a surreal finish. Recently named artist of the week by The Advocate
, he’s made a name for himself by exploring kink and notions of identity influenced by religion and psychology. In Brotherhood
, Simpson creates a world of his own.
“A friend said it seemed like I was making my own little cult,” he explains. “I really latched on to that idea, and so the show is based around the idea that my work is a cult that I’ve created. There’s an insular feel to it, like if you walked into the freemasons’ guildhall and there’s pictures of past members. The fact they are all black and skeletal makes them look like they all belong in the same secret society.”
The world of cults, secret societies and maligned religious practices like voodoo has always been a source of inspiration. “Visual cues from The Day of the Dead you can see in the work,” Simpson says. “Santa Muerte is also fascinating. They are Mexican groups of Catholics worshipping Saint Death as if it was a person. It’s fantastically interesting. It’s the only saint they believe you can pray to for revenge. I try to take ideas from all those different places so that I’m not specifically referencing Baron Samedi or Santa Muerte, but I love the collision of ideas and images.”
For Simpson, an individual piece can take upward of 35 hours to complete, and the final result is tense and erotically charged, confidently straddling the worlds of art, erotica and pornography. But while his work is quite graphic, it doesn’t feature full-frontal nudity.
“I don’t usually photograph naked people because I think dicks look kind of weird on guys,” says Simpson. “Especially when they’re painted the way I do. I also think a lot of people aren’t artistically open enough to look at a picture and not be distracted by the dick, so I don’t shoot them nude generally. It’s implied nudity — you just don’t see the parts.”
While the models aren’t naked, that doesn’t mean that being photographed by Simpson is for the shy.
“It’s often more awkward when I ask the model to put a corrugated tube down their pants or drool on themselves,” he explains. “I had a J-Lube phase, and it was quite stringy and messy and looked pretty suggestive without showing anything. Models are as hesitant to do those things as they are to be photographed nude. They’re all worried about how they look.”
The men in Simpson’s work are definitely part of the draw, and his photographs have become so popular that models have begun to seek him out. His technical process adds to the allure: he creates hyper-masculine figures with mythical qualities, but he doesn’t limit himself to the He-Man body type.
“I tend to like someone who has good definition with what I’m doing now, painting people,” he explains. “The definition is what adds to the interest. Some people would say I shoot twinks, but I’d say I’d photograph anyone: skinny to athletic to very muscular, depending on how much definition they have. Often the men end up looking like twinks in my photographs because we shave them head to toe to paint them or to apply latex to them, simply because it has to be done.”
It can be impossible to identify the models when Simpson (left) is finished with them, giving the work an element of mystery; alien-like textures replace skin, and shadows are carefully cast to obscure faces.
“It’s interesting that you can line up my pieces and not be able to identify who the models are,” he says. “I think people are more interesting than they appear. It’s always the case, but it’s hard to get at that with the way we interact in our world, as people classify themselves and dress certain ways, and I like to get past that. By dressing someone up or modifying them to an extreme, you can get closer to the idea that how someone appears on the outside is not really who they are. I like that idea that the obliteration of identity almost makes the models interchangeable. Maybe that says something about men.”
Brotherhood opens Thurs, June 2 at Pentimento Fine Art Gallery, 1164 Queen St E. pentimento.ca, gelliottsimpson.com
Andrew Robertson is a
fab writer who loves a scary skeletal hunk as much as the next guy.