The New York Observer


Perfect Circles

June 12, 2007


Hester Simpson fashions a sumptuous pageant of sensation using the sparest of means. The pictorial vocabulary of her paintings, now on view at Ricco Maresca Gallery, is restricted, if not entirely inflexible: circles and ellipses, concentric or overlapping, in flat and uninflected patterns—that’s about it in terms of identifiable imagery. Ms. Simpson aligns them along a grid, to which she has an unshakable allegiance. (Penciled traces of that framework can be glimpsed here and there in the paintings.) The overall regularity of motif favors rhythm and stability over internal tension. The pictures are, in effect, anti-compositions. Ms. Simpson paints systems.

Her gift is apparent in the way she takes the generic components of her pictures and particularizes them, discovering complex experiences within the limits she’s set for herself. Ms. Simpson pays keen attention to process, surface, color and light, and she hews diligently to the strictures of painting. In doing so, she proves the medium capable of encompassing a myriad of things, not least personal quirks. Out of restraint and repetition come freedom and individuality.

Ms. Simpson works patiently and methodically, applying countless layers of thinned acrylic paint. While in process, the panels are laid horizontally—we see various consistencies of paint dripped over the edge of each painting. Ms. Simpson places her trust in the material’s inherent expressive capabilities. Touch is downplayed in favor of detachment—the paint settles according to its own logic, minus the hand’s overt manipulations. Her lustrous, immaculately crafted surfaces appear as dense as marzipan and feel as boundless as the stratosphere.

The geometric structures are rarely wedged to fit within the parameters of the painting. Patterns slip, flit surreptitiously and, in Variables (2006), tilt with determination. Ultramarine (2006) and Gossip (2006), with its comical array of googly circles, are emphatically frontal, with forms butting up against each other. In other works, eye-popping crosscurrents overlap and intersect—a title, Bumper Cars, accurately describes their jarring propulsion. Does Ms. Simpson employ stencils or does she rely on a practiced hand? The paintings are absent hard edges; contours waver with tender precision. Ever self-effacing, the artist endows her machine-tooled shapes with vulnerability.

Other paintings convey a less regulated and more expansive mood. Circles about the size of quarters float dreamily within impermeable expanses of liquid color. Ms. Simpson’s palette is candied and exotic. Its gradations of intensity, value and temperature are infinitely subtle. In one piece, three variations of purple—two veering toward pink, another gray and steely—attract and repel each other like magnets. The lineup of circles in Blue Moon (2006) creates pinpoints of light and, with it, a confounding sense of dimensionality. Ms. Simpson is a rare and deft colorist.

Like Helen Miranda Wilson, another artist capable of investing anonymous form with unmistakable fullness, Ms. Simpson employs color and process as a kind of meditation. “Color arrives unannounced,” she tells us, “like an ancestor knocking at my door.” This isn’t sentimental hooey: Ms. Simpson endows her romanticism with muscle, rigor and cool severity, and she makes something permanent of its seductions. Painting is “an accumulation of memory” for her—something that moves beyond and above its physical means. These are her most assured and beautiful paintings to date.

Hester Simpson: Related Paintings is at Ricco Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, until June 23.

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Canvases Are Small but Potent, At Once Tender and Cerebral

April 26, 2004


“Critics-they always get their digs in.” That’s a comment I overheard from the director of a gallery the day one of its artists received a rave review-albeit with the mildest of criticisms-from The New York Times. Following in the noble tradition, allow me to briefly air my grievances about the terrific show of paintings by Hester Simpson at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery. Ms. Simpson makes small abstract paintings, most of which measure 10 inches square. She’s clearly had a prolific time in the studio recently, providing plenty of pictures (with no apparent diminution in quality) to fill up the gallery’s sizable main space. My quibble is with the installation: By dimming the lights and surrounding each picture with a single spot-a halo, in effect-the folks at Ricco/Maresca set an ecclesiastical mood, creating an atmosphere more conducive to reverence than aesthetic engagement. Not to mention that the show can be hard to look at. Step back, take in the entire gallery and note how the procession of bright spots makes the eye “jump” in an uncomfortable manner.

Then get up close to Ms. Simpson’s paintings and try not to go weak in the knees: They are her most assured and beautiful pictures to date. The painterly methodology remains unchanged: Applying countless layers of thinned acrylic to canvas, Ms. Simpson creates lustrous fields of luminous color-bottomless, velvety blues and hot pinkish-reds being her specialty. The grid has preoccupied Ms. Simpson for years, but here the circle is the agent of structure and image. It takes on a new role with each canvas: In one picture, a cluster of circles coalesces into a microscopic form; in another, they drift dreamily within a space as yielding as air and as obdurate as amber. Tiptoeing adroitly between painting as illusion and painting as object, Ms. Simpson is constantly questioning the properties and possibilities of her craft. Meticulous, tender, cerebral and bordering on libidinous, the pictures evince an artist operating at an intensity that will be the envy of her peers and a pleasure for the rest of us.

Hester Simpson: New Paintings is at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, third floor, until May 1.

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A Painter Succeeds, Giving Color Leeway

November 26, 2001


Gallery goers accustomed to the quick fix will trot right past the paintings of Hester Simpson, and is it any wonder why? The contemporary scene with its glut of thingamajigs and its paucity of inspiration, engenders impatience for anything requiring more than a brief nod of recognition which is a roundabout way of saying that Ms. Simpson’s abstractions, currently the subject of an exhibition at Ricco Maresca Gallery, are something other than the usual.

Layering thinned acrylics onto small, boxy canvases, Ms. Simpson endows her paintings of checkerboards and stripes with a satiny, bottomless sheen. Geometry is, for this painter, less an ultimatum than an armature upon which her velvety palette is free to state its case. Ms. Simpson’s brush states its case as well, moving with a surety that is nonetheless conscious of its options. Consequently, the paintings are tinged with an anxiety that is both provisional and tender; there’s more edge to these lustrous paintings than one might expect. Ms. Simpson falters when she favors surface over color, but when she gives color leeway, the canvases radiate a fragile contentment. And if that phrase sounds like so much bad poetry, try coming up with a better trope for the allusive haze of green blue-black and purple that is Forgotten Morning (2001). Hester Simpson: Small Paintings is at Ricco Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, until Jan. 5.

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