SIMON BIRCHFears Wrongs Doubts Spinward, 2014, oil on canvas, 216 × 175 cm. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong. 

SIMON BIRCHKid Pickle, 2014, oil on canvas, 130 × 130 cm. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

The Inevitable

Simon Birch

Ben Brown Fine Arts
Hong Kong

A glimpse of a woman’s anguished face, her eyes tightly shut and her hands at her head, is interrupted by a flash of blue nothingness. Action returns suddenly; strands of hair fly wildly as the woman’s head thrashes back, her fists clenched and her body spinning, before another moment of tranquility—a clear void—appears again.

The scene is neither a series flashbacks from a dramatic television series, nor multiple cuts from a film. It plays out not across the screen but on canvas, in Simon Birch’s Fears Wrongs Doubts Spinward (2014)—one of nine new paintings presented in “The Inevitable,” at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong. The exhibition is the British-born, Hong Kong-based multimedia artist’s second solo show at the gallery.

“The Inevitable” marks both a departure and a return for Birch, who is known for his expressive, gestural portraits of figures in motion. The artist’s knack for conveying energy, angst and movement through the use of colorful, fractured shapes in his paintings has not changed. Expressing the body in bright, geometric forms, like facets of a prism, they are not dissimilar to works that were seen in Birch’s 2013 solo exhibition, “Hooligan.”

For example, in He looked up from it at the stars again, and the view was warped and distorted by something in his eyes, which at first he thought was rain (2015), a female figure is seen with her hand outstretched and covering her face, in pixelated strokes of red, blue, white and black, appearing as though under a flashing light in a dark room. The sky was aquamarine, stroked with clouds. She could smell the grass and taste the scent of small, crushed flowers (2015) employs a similar palette, depicting a figure lurching backwards with her head in her hands. Splinters of colors have captured a dynamic moment in time, with violent splashes of paint overtaking the pale, plain ground of the canvas.

New works in “The Inevitable” include those that are similar in scale, media and palette to Birch’s earlier pieces. They are works that have also introduced technical innovations to the artist’s oeuvre, and, in some cases, have pushed Birch’s characteristic portraits to borderline abstraction. All created in 2014, they have brought a new, splicing technique to the artist’s repertoire, where vertical strips of abstract imagery—some thin, others several inches wide—are incorporated into the paintings. Varying degrees of experimentation are evident across several works.

Birch’s distinctive female figure appears in Kid Pickle (2014), her jagged hands gripping her face and depicted in a kinetic blaze of red, flesh and bright white tones. Yet her image is interrupted by several strips of abstract forms—in green, gray, black and red—which add chaos and confusion to the already tense scene.

SIMON BIRCHRed Collider Unseen Fox, 2014, oil on canvas, 200 × 300 cm. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

SIMON BIRCH, Elephant Traktor Takion, 2014, oil on canvas, 160 × 200 cm. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

Similarly, the 2015 painting There was no pity in the glance, only the sort of parting acknowledgement anyone may give to a piece of hard work that has now been finished shows Birch’s distinct figurative language while introducing colorful vertical bands of varying width. A woman’s dark shoulder and neck, leaning precariously backwards, can be discerned through the geometric pandemonium of Birch’s imagination. 

Birch goes further in Elephant Traktor Takion (2014), where the figure is lost altogether in a mayhem of vigorous strokes and freewheeling forms, as it careens across four wide strips on the canvas. Lines, colors and shapes crash together at the seams. Meanwhile, five panels of disorderly abstract forms are united in Red Collider Unseen Fox (2014), their shapes both soft and sharp, actively shooting upward or lazily listing downward, in reds, pinks, whites and blues, and shades of green, yellow and orange.

Integrated smoothly in the gallery space, Birch’s new abstractions are hung alongside his familiar figure paintings. The vitality of his tumultuous portraits gives energy and meaning to the bedlam unfolding on his abstract canvases. The power of Birch’s shattered new abstractions comes from the knowledge of what—and who—they depicted before.


“Simon Birch: “The Inevitable” is currently on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong, until April 29.