The new center of gravity of the Seattle art world, the area just east of Pioneer Square, continues to evolve. In the last few months, three more galleries have opened in the lively Toshiro Kaplan Building at the heart of the new district, and several other galleries are coming to the area soon. The nearby gallery that helped spark the migration, Greg Kucera, is maintaining its tradition of highlighting leading lights in the local arts scene with a show this month of abstract paintings by Jeffrey Simmons. Previously best known for highly chromatic, carefully crafted images of colored rings, his recent paintings strike out in a different direction. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his observations.
Abstract art is theoretically unmoored from specific reference to the everyday world, but it’s often highly reflective of a particular time and place. The hothouse atmosphere of the Russian revolution gave rise to the pure, utopian imagery of Constructivism, while the macho, no-holds-barred painting of Pollock and De Kooning seems like natural accompaniments to the mid-century America of John Coltrane and Jack Kerouac.
These ruminations were inspired by the suite of intriguing new paintings by Jeffrey Simmons now at Greg Kucera, works that are highly dependent for both their imagery and their mood on recent developments in the worlds of photography, science and technology. So deftly do these works draw on the floating imagery of the early 21st century, that they have the peculiar property of seeming vaguely familiar, while looking, when you come right down to it, like nothing in particular.
Here’s just a few of the things that came to mind while browsing the dozen-odd paintings in the show, paintings mostly composed of hundreds of tiny dots (who knew clumps of dots could be so evocative?):
Adding to the high-tech look and feel of these works is their technique, a highly mysterious affair where the hand of the artist is barely in evidence, the surface of the paintings a textureless, ultra-sophisticated skein of colored dots, blobs, lines, and occasional mechanical shapes laid against a solid black background, the better to set off the glow of the painted elements. One visitor speculated that the pictures looked like they had been computer-generated, a not completely unreasonable (though incorrect) guess given both the flatness and repetitiveness of the painter’s marks. I personally suspected the use of a stencil, which turns out to also not be the case.
In fact, the paintings are the result of a painstaking process of layering, where hundreds of tiny, mechanically-similar dots, drips and swirls are arranged in patterns, then coated with layers of transparent, colored acrylic medium, layers which are then sanded back to partly reveal (and blur) the individual marks below. The finished paintings are extremely fine-grained, rewarding close inspection while at the same time emitting a soft radiance, like the coals of a slow-banked fire. Peculiar, tiny quirks — smooth lentil-sized grey paint mounds here and there, trompe l’oeil stains, black block-out shapes — give the surface yet another, almost subliminal, level of activity.
And, then there is the issue of color, perhaps the most vivid single element of the work. While a great deal of color is employed in total, many of the individual paintings are dominated by only one or two colors, and even the most complicated paintings have only a few major color components. What color there is, however, is often tuned to its highest intensity — major chords rather than minor ones, cherry red rather than rust, pure red-violet rather than mauve.
The painting entitled, "O Precious Thought! Some Day The Mist Shall Vanish" (the title comes from an old song) falls into the “Most Colorful” category. Oval-shaped, its black background grading into a deep sky-blue on the left-hand edge, the image is composed of five vaguely defined vertical stripes made up of variously sized and shaped dots, primarily in red and blue, with smaller areas of orange and violet. Scattered throughout is a repeated circular motif, suggesting either a compass rose, a gear, or an Aztec sun symbol. The painting falls just short of being garish, just short of being sci-fi, and just short of being too woo-woo (read: spiritual) for your average godless Seattleite — which is probably why it works. Successful art often comes close to a particular edge, without quite crossing it, maintaining a tension between what we expect to see (conventional imagery), and what is actually enacted.
The effect, in this case, is also slightly disturbing, perhaps because its visual electricity is so intense, a bit dangerous — with the red of fire or a breeder reactor being the most dominant color. Even more disturbing is the least successful painting in the show, a smaller canvas with the unmemorable title, "Love Dust" (a song by Mike Hamer). This oval painting is done up entirely in Pepto-Bismol pink, with the foreground elements drawn in white. Here the dots are entirely replaced by line drawing, and we can almost recognize tube-like body parts that bear a cartoony resemblance to intestines, sex organs, and blood vessels. Gone is the mystery, not to mention the glow, that activates most of the other works. Simmons is at his best when he avoids getting too specific.
And yet, it’s the fact that this painting exists at all that suggests why Simmons is such an interesting artist to follow. Committed to experiment, unwilling to repeat himself, Simmons is likely to produce a follow-up show that is as original and surprising as this one — bearing the fruit of his keenly honed artistry, and his willingness to push the boundaries of technique. Meanwhile, Simmons helps make the case that paint is still a force to reckon with, even in an age where the technological and the electronic so often dominate the aesthetic conversation.