Let's begin by clearing up one fact: Jeffrey Simmons's paintings are, in fact, paintings made by Jeffrey Simmons. This is true in the most traditional possible sense. He uses paintbrushes, on canvas. Laboriously, he layers acrylic paint on and sands it down. That's how they're made.
It's necessary to make this point because people endlessly mistake these paintings for photographs. People also mistake them for images powered by electric light, plugged in, lit from behind, illuminated by some secret source besides paint. The people making these mistakes are only getting halfway there. The paintings do look like photographs in light boxes at first; it's the fact that they're not that sends the mind spinning. In order to get the full cognitive dissonance, you need the mistake and the fact, the illusion and the truth.
Simmons is a Seattle artist whose name you ought to know; he has been making interesting paintings since 1996. Right now he's having his fifth solo show at Greg Kucera Gallery, and it's called Nebulae, referring to the dust clouds that form stars and planets. The word nebula, nicely, is the root for nebulous, meaning fuzzy and indistinct. The things you see in Simmons's new paintings—brightly colored shapes that look like nebulae, supernovas, and other galactic objects, glowing on solid black backgrounds—do fuzz and vibrate a little at their edges. They're groovy and trippy, like op art, but they also, like the work of Gerhard Richter, play with the interdisciplinary blurriness inherent in all looking.
When Simmons first appeared on the scene, he was making turntable paintings. He used a rotating easel to make targetlike images of hard-edged concentric circles—the canvas moved instead of the artist, in what was, as Kucera says, essentially the opposite of action painting. Between the perfect, mechanistic lines, in well-defined areas, was drippy evidence of the accidental. For these he won a special recognition award from the Betty Bowen Award committee in 1996. Later, for his first show at Kucera in 1999, he built a machine that would rotate the canvas while orbiting a fixed point, creating lines that crossed back over themselves like children's Spirographs.
In 2000, he showed sharp watercolors that were made by elaborate overlaps of transparent colors. He's still doing these (a handful were shown at the Lee Center earlier this year), and they're almost unsettlingly masterful. There's a superhumanness to Simmons's control of paint, and in a 2005 show, he turned up the god-or-machine factor with imagery that looked like it came from aerial photography of cities at night or from computer screens. For the first time, the layered surfaces of his paintings were sanded perfectly smooth, like lenses.
The surfaces of the Nebulae paintings are smooth, too. Their imagery is taken from photographs of astronomical phenomena (and some of them mimic, in minimalist fashion, the grid arrangement of science textbooks). Behind the smooth surfaces are receding layers of depth. Shining out from the deepest point is the most vibrant color, as though it's been branded into the canvas and is still glowing. The other layers are full of hints that these are paintings about looking. Light appears to spill out from behind black shapes, as though something were curtained over or redacted; in other images, rows of black stripes over colored areas look like window blinds. One painting bears what look like the frame marks of a digital camera. Considered differently, these shapes and stripes are simple, basic, monochrome forms asserting their flatness in an environment preoccupied with depth.
These paintings also travel in time, like the stars they reference. Just as it's possible, because of the great distance, to see stars in the night sky that have actually, in real time, gone dead, so these paintings seem both products of a single, captured moment, and the accumulated results of an extended travel time over the duration of the artist's process. They record incidents and the residue of incidents; they're time-lapse paintings.
Which is true? What's truth in a painting, anyway? Simmons's works are down in the trenches of theories about painting here. Modernists called faithful imitation the greatest lie of all, and abstractionists of all stripes have claimed their works to be truer than mimetic scenes, more objective. In abstract expressionism, a true painting was one that was true to the emotional moment in which it was made, forging a link between painting and time that was more like the conventional link between photography and time—that photographs are made in a "decisive moment," as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it, when you snapped the great shot, kidnapped a part of the world before it disappeared from space- time forever.
When you put it that way, it's surprising that there aren't more great conceptual outer-space paintings out there. (I can't think of a single outer-space painting better than Simmons's.) Stars and night skies lend themselves more often to drawings, as by Sol LeWitt and Vija Celmins, which is understandable. Like drawings, with their eternal possibility of becoming something else (a painting, a sculpture), astronomical objects are contingent. We perceive them dimly. They are photographed but not seen with the naked eye, known about but not touched, and pleasantly beyond the scope of regular quantifiability or conquest. Paintings like that—like Simmons's—are fun as hell.