212 Third Ave South Seattle, WA 98104
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Susan Skilling / Jeffrey Simmons, January 3 – February 16, 2013
Visiting Greg Kucera Gallery for the first time is a delightful experience, especially if you’re going it alone. Located on 3rd and Main street downtown, the outside environment is noisy, bustling with traffic and pedestrians, but upon entering the gallery I was welcomed with a peaceful silence, the front desk unmanned and partly obscured by a wall. I have to admit that I found this sparse, austerely quiet room disappointing at first after hearing so much praise for the gallery, but this feeling dissipated as soon as I moved past the desk into the back and discovered a myriad of other artists and artworks. There were too many artists on display to cover in-depth here, so I will highlight what I found to be some of the more compelling pieces in the show. Susan Skilling and Jeffrey Simmons are the main focus of the exhibition, so I will devote my attention solely to their pieces. The show investigates the tension between natural and man-made worlds, the organic and the mechanical, an appropriate theme to consider here in Seattle, at the intersection of modern urban life and nature.
The foyer of Greg Kucera is hung only with works by Skilling, which creates a peaceful if monotonous uniformity. She uses a very specific color range lingering mostly in browns, khakis, blues and yellows with small touches of red and white to provide a little variety. Many of Skilling’s paintings (all gouache on mulberry paper) are reminiscent of Japanese prints not only in their flat colors and floral/landscape subjects, but also the brown-tinted paper and muted color scheme she employs. Other paintings have more of an impressionist feel and slightly wider color range; titles like “City From Above” and “Desert Moth (I)” indicate a very specific subject, but the paintings are much more abstract and focused on the brushstrokes themselves than other pieces like “Forest Poem,” which is easily read as a literal depiction of flowers. Skilling’s art has an extremely natural quality, in part due to the abundance of earthy tones in her palette and in part to her choice of materials. The paper she paints on is literally rough around the edges and she sometimes makes her gouache herself. Her paintings have a raw, tactile quality to them and a very woodsy, northwest feel.
“City From Above,” my personal favorite, focuses specifically on the effects of lines, small triangular and square shapes, and the contrast between areas of pastel pinks, greens, and blues with muddy brown-black passages, suggesting the busy interplay of many different forces. Despite the seemingly random arrangement of brushstrokes and colors, the painting comes together as an attractive community of shifting colors and organic forms from afar. “Landscape From A Distance” conveys a similarly harmonious effect through yellow, blue, and brown mountainous forms consisting of almost topographical lines that rise and fall together in layers, creating small pockets of individual colors. I cannot say as much for the rest of her paintings, which are all composed of somewhat bland blue/brown tones and lack such evocative and distinct forms. Nonetheless, her combination of urban impressionist speed with relaxing, natural forms creates an interesting duality that gives her paintings a distinctly modern aesthetic while also imbuing them with an ancient sensibility.
The deeper one ventures into the gallery, the more astonishing and varied the pieces become. Jeffrey Simmons, the second artist currently featured, has on display several hypnotizing works that rely on simple shapes and color contrasts to achieve an entrancing effect. The paintings, surprisingly, are done in watercolor, but the artist has mastered the medium to the extent that actually perceiving the works as painted with watercolors, or even having been painted at all, takes a great deal of effort. The pieces look more like prints, displaying sharply edged forms and an obvious attention to design and symmetry. Simmons’ process seems decidedly more mechanical than Skilling’s, representing a different approach to creating modern images. His paintings are also much more abstract, the subject of his works being the interplay of shape and color and their affect on the eye. Certainly one might draw connections to neoplasticism and minimalism with the emphasis on a utopian ideal of a perfectly ordered and harmonious art, the straight line and primary color reigning supreme. Simmons’ colors, though, are anything but primary; blinding neon yellows blend into deep magentas and robin’s egg blues, giving the effect of a drug-induced hallucination. Artificiality and fantasy seem an important component of Simmons’ works, as one could hardly imagine his simplified forms and perfect spaces existing in the natural world. His “Palindrome” paintings, made up entirely of colored circles stacked on top of each other and arranged to form larger circular shapes, are reminiscent of after-images created by the eye after being exposed to bright light. Here a connection to the “natural” world is forged, but only a fleeting one.
“Three Rotated Forms” is perhaps the most interesting of Simmons’ paintings on view for the stark contrast created by the stacked colors blending together to create a murky black tone on the white background, and the incredibly convincing rendering of an ethereal three-dimensional space using only certain triangular shapes. This is also the only piece that shows off the fact that it was rendered in watercolor: faint liquid shadows seep down the paper, making the shapes appear as if they were traveling upwards at high speed. The extreme precision and mathematical quality of these works paired with the pulsing vibrancy of Simmons’ color palette creates a strange dichotomy between strict design, perfect proportions and a sense of entropy or growing anxiety.
The Greg Kucera Gallery is a truly unique and beautiful space; I didn’t get a chance to discuss the sculpture deck or many of the other artists on display, but that should be an incentive to visit the gallery in person. The show is extremely varied, although there does seem to be a basic question linking all the artists together: what does “modern” art look like? Is it grounded in a process of synthesizing past art forms into a new hybrid style, or must it try to be as new and untethered to tradition as possible? Can modern art be naturalistic or must it reflect emerging technology and mindsets? Is it possible for an artist to attempt to do both? Skilling and Simmons go at these questions from different angles and arrive at equally valid and beautiful destinations. Both artists come from a place of abstraction and seem to assert in their art that a certain detachment from the subject and the creation of new forms from imagination (though grounded originally in reality) is most worthwhile. Neither depicts figures or “traditional” subjects, but both instead communicate deeper emotions and obscure concepts by infusing their works with their own personalities and aesthetic preferences. Perhaps, as Bell and Frye claimed in the early 20th century, the most important thing in modern and contemporary art is the overall aesthetic emotion a work generates, the basic gut reaction one receives from looking at a piece of art. Whether or not one agrees with the premise of formalist criticism, the overwhelming focus on basic formal elements at Greg Kucera and galleries around the world today cannot be ignored. Originality is a tricky concept to talk about, but Skilling and Simmons are as original as an artist can be nowadays, which provides still another reason to visit the gallery and experience their works for yourself.
Susan Skilling and Jeffrey Simmons’ works will be on view until Feb. 16, 2013.
 Bell, “The Aesthetic Hypothesis,” from Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology (1982)