The paintings in Jeffrey Simmons’ marvelous new show, “Watercolors,” are not what you think of as watercolors.
They make no use of the fast, mercurial flow of thin paint over paper to create landscapes or seascapes, as in the work of Sargent, Turner or Homer. They offer no quick-sketch portraits; they take no fleeting looks at the human figure in action or in intimate repose.
Instead, they’re precise, geometrical abstractions: cool analyses of light, sharp-edged considerations of color, meticulous investigations of strictly regulated shapes.
They’re dazzling, exquisitely disciplined and well worth a special trip to Greg Kucera Gallery, where they’re on show until Feb. 16.
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Simmons, a Seattle artist, likes to work in series. Three of the most striking pieces in this show are his “Palindrome” paintings, which float like the ghosts of bright, interlocking mandalas over paneled fields of white paper.
Perfectly symmetrical, they do indeed “read” the same from right to left as they do from left to right. They’re intricate and transparent, methodical and mysterious. The breaking up of the pieces’ white-paper surface into 10 or 15 rectangular fields further adds to the paintings’ rhythmic complexity.
Different kinds of complexity are explored in “Rotation IV,” “Three Rotated Forms” and a trio of “stacks” (“Slanting Stack,” “Stack II,” “Three-Point Stack”). While the thin, brightly colored rectangles and squares of the stacks sit sharp-edged against their white backgrounds, “Rotation IV” and “Three Rotated Forms” play more mischievously with the watercolor medium.
“Rotation IV” is a spiral of multicolored planes with a faint watercolor “bleed” coming from them. “Three Rotated Forms” — vertical planes in vivid colors, arranged in three floating rings, one above the other — also leave ghostly watercolor “vapor trails” behind them in their seemingly upward trajectory.
Finally, Simmons’ small studies titled “Resonator” or “Chromatic Resonator” (or, in one case, “Echo Pulse”) explore what happens when interlocking circles of color overlap, producing new hues. One pleasure of these and all the other works in the show is their Day-Glo artifice. The closest things in nature that their Christmas-light hues appromixate are the blank CD cases you can buy at any office-supply store.
Also at Kucera: a number of new paintings, all of them gouache on mulberry paper, by Seattle artist Susan Skilling. They’re darker affairs than Simmons’ work, but no less intricate.
Working largely in earth tones, Skilling matches organic shapes with evocative titles: “Footprints in the Night Desert,” “Landscape from a Distance,” “City from Above,” “Desert Moth,” “Forest Poem,” “Spider Web and Stars.”
Most of the paintings teem with busy brush-strokes that bring them right to the edge of abstraction. “Footprints in the Night Desert” works almost like a Rorschach test. With no title, you likely wouldn’t “read” it as a sandy, pebbly desert floor, let alone one with footprints in it. But with the title in mind, you keep seeing more and more possibilities in its hints and ambiguities. By contrast, “Forest Poem,” with its overtly rendered blossoms and foliage, is pretty — but less intriguing.
In Skilling’s two “Desert Moth” paintings, the abstract and the figurative fuse into one. Their khaki, brown and drab green colors don’t look like anything specific until you read their titles. Then they transform into photorealistic close-ups of moths’ wings.
Something similar happens in “Landscape from a Distance,” where only the title makes the putative landscape precipitate into view. Skilling’s work doesn’t quite light up your brain in quite the way that Simmons’ watercolors do — but she’s following a curious thread of tension along a subtle path.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org