A few days ago I drove down to Benicassim to photograph Joan Simo, a local artist with a colourful reputation.
His gallery and home is on the main street of the old town centre, a place I had never been to before. Usually I just gun it to the beach with its proliferation of high rises throwing shade over the trickle of historic villas fronting the sea. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to see that Benicassim’s core has retained some of its old Spanish charm.
Joan was interesting. A not sprightly man, he nevertheless seemed proud of his girth and sported a shirt unbuttoned down the front. Grey hairs protruded like waving tentacles, matching bands of long thinning hair that petered down his back. He stared, for the most part expressionless, adroitly presenting his work in the manner of a circus maestro. I could just discern a touch of weariness in him, as if to say, here is another one who does not get me.
At one point he showed me a photo of a dog he once had, and then another of his nipples. “You see”, he stated seriously, “can’t you see my dog there?”
Was this some kind of test, I wondered? I said I could.
It so transpired that the dog in question had been put down after an altercation with the neighbours. “An error of judgment”, he said mournfully, without going into further details.
I have to be honest and say I did not think much of his present exhibition. It seemed to be bits of rubbish, accentuated by a preponderance of cigarette packs, a scattering of toys, and well, the kind of stuff you would see discarded on any unkempt beach.
Most were glued to the front of various collages seeped in vivid colours, not unlike something my sons would have produced in primary school. The rest was held in place by netting strung across the canvases, high, low, or entirely. I pulled at one of the lower sections and it snapped back against the artwork. Kind of like string bags on prams, I concluded, though visually it spoke of fishing nets.
More interesting were the mounds of multi-hued squash, also the artichokes piled in baskets by the front door. I also loved the encaustic floor tiles that faithfully respected the house’s old origins.
But I persevered and am happy to say that I did for even if the present exhibition should be torched in a bonfire of absurdities, Joan Simo has much more to him than meets the eye.
For a start he is prolific and vey diverse, much like the great Swiss artist Dieter Roth (deceased). In the nooks and crannies of his gallery I discovered statues of remarkable skill, and paintings totally unlike the current show. It is said that in a warehouse some towns away he hordes thousands of art works, the result of many frantic projects.
Like Dieter he gets a bee in his bonnet and works without pause for weeks on end, not stopping, hardly sleeping until the idea is squeezed dry. He has even done a series of remarkable coloured sketches titled “talking about the penis”. Each one is accompanied by a poem of musings. These sketches are very skilled indeed.
At one point he invited me into his study to show me a book he was working on. Piled high in the middle of his relatively tidy desk was a mound of euro notes sorted artistically into their various deminations. Next to it there was a slightly cloudy bowl full of tiny colourful fish. It was all very odd. And funny. We both laughed.
Yes, he reminds me of Dieter Roth very much indeed.
In the end Joan dropped his blank stare and cooperated with my camera. He even proposed that I return in August to replicate properly this picture below with some large installation of his. I did not actually understand what it is or where it is coming from, but in time I will find out. That is if he is still talking to me after he reads this!