JEFFREY SIMMONS Op art without the nausea.
Laurie Reid

James Harris Gallery, 309A Third Ave S, 903-6220.

Through March 15.

Jeffrey Simmons

Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave S, 624-0770.

Through March 1.

If you're still not convinced that what makes a work of art is not how much or how little has been done to it, there are two shows at the opposite ends of the spectrum that should undo you completely. They're also right across the street from each other.

On the one hand, there is Jeffrey Simmons, whose circle studies fall mostly into the camp of op art, although not as vertiginous as some. His current paintings are thoroughly worked: up to 80 layers of acrylic paint, some transparent, some opaque, with sharp rings fading off into vagueness, just enough to make your eyeballs vibrate a little, not enough for seasickness. This work is controlled; any little accidental-looking blobs, you may be sure, are calculated, or at least considered. These are paintings you can look deep into, thanks to the layers--although I'm still surprised when someone manages to wring depth from acrylics--and sometimes the depth registers as elevation, so you're never entirely sure how reliable your eyes are.

A set of works made with copier toner fused (with a heat lamp) to paper enlarges the circle as platonic idea. Toner, as it turns out, is more powder than fluid--a quality Simmons exploits, here with high glittering ridges that spiral toward the center of a circle, there with matte pigment laid down like a tire track. One panel looks like a circle imploded into a cloud of dust. There's a narrative implied here, about a circle's infinite variations, its essential qualities (which have less to do with roundness than you think), something we've already accumulated and absorbed by moving around the gallery from painting to painting.

Simmons is also showing some vertical rainbow paintings where layers sit right on bare canvas, along with bi-level undulating paintings that offer a more substantial retinal challenge; but I was more interested in the universe of circleness (nova? lens flare? black hole?) that most of his exhibition offers. It would have been a tighter show without those distractions, and I wonder if Simmons knows it; a lovely, lovely little work called Borrowed Light, which consists of 49 Polaroids of a round light source in different colors, rather slyly declares his intentions.

On the other hand, there is Laurie Reid, whose work reveals how much can happen in a single dot of paint, and the relative merits of deliberation and accident. These are ideas that were rather thoroughly explored in the era of abstract expressionism, when paint's inherent paintiness (what paint, given proper freedom, would go and do) was on everyone's minds.

Reid's predecessors are Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who poured thin acrylic paint onto unprimed canvases to see what would happen. Like them, she explores the properties of paint, in this case watercolors--a medium pretty thoroughly confined in the public imagination to elderly weekend hobbyists, hardly the stuff of patient investigation. The properties Reid seems most interested in are precisely those you'd think you'd want to avoid: the way the paper puckers, the way certain colors separate as they dry, sometimes with thin, intense outlines around washed-out centers. This willingness to approach a medium's less, shall we say, attractive qualities, as well as an abiding interest in an often pooh-poohed medium, infuses Reid's work with game good humor.

That's only part of what makes it good. In one work, a set of light-blue dots--some smooth, some corrugated, some blobby, some tight--are self-contained entities in the top half of the painting, and in the bottom half they're uncontrolled spills, like long-tailed comets heading toward hell. You can read the liberated half of the painting as a wish, an alter ego, a dirty lie... a kind of secret life of dots. In any case, the two halves create a tension between liberation and constraint, between control and accident (and you'll go crazy not knowing which is which), that rather powerfully animates the work. This is one of the pleasures of such work as Reid's and Simmons': Much abstract work doesn't illuminate anything beyond itself, but this work shows you what your eyes and mind will go and do.