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Thursday, February 6, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Splashing Color Like A Spice -- Two Artists Help Enliven The Winter

Seattle Times Art Critic

----------------------------------------------------------------- Visual arts review

New work by painters David Christensen and Jeffrey Simmons, Linda Cannon Gallery, 520 Second Ave., through March 1. -----------------------------------------------------------------

If you need a jolt of color during these winter days, drop in to the Linda Cannon Gallery where there are exhibits by two young Seattle painters who use color like Italian chefs use garlic. They can't seem to get enough of it.

In the gallery's big front space David Christensen's large oil paintings on canvas and wood are exuberant, dizzyingly lively compositions filled to the edges with anthropomorphic stick figures, gigantic inch worms, daisies, bugs and butterflies. Sometimes you can pick out a little house like the kind a young child draws with a crayon - two windows upstairs and a chimney on the roof. Sometimes there are disembodied faces, cartoon guys with skeleton teeth and doggy ears.

Christensen says some of his imagery comes from his travels in Mexico, and there are occasional references to Day of the Dead skeleton heads and tropical fruit. But this work also suggests graffiti art. The paintings are big, some more than 6 feet wide, and so thick with globby paint that it's best to stand back at least 20 feet to see them. Like many young figurative artists today, Christensen adopts a slap-dash, untrained style that is perhaps meant to look either primitive or childlike. The late Jean-Michel Basquiat legitimized graffiti style and it's been hanging on gallery walls ever since.

Christensen's paintings at times fall into the trap of being overly busy and a tad too messy, but they're also playful without being too cute, and that's a tough trick to pull off.

New spin on '60s ideas

In the gallery's smaller back room, Jeffrey Simmons has a group of abstract paintings that are unusual and refreshing. Though it's tempting at first to call them op art and compare them to the work of such '60s experimenters as Kenneth Noland, Simmons has put his own imprint on the '60s ideas of optical illusion, wheels within wheels, color-field painting and the target as a kaleidoscopic image.

Simmons created the paintings by spinning the surfaces on contraptions he made, or, in the case of a group of smaller paintings, on a record turntable. The idea was to get the canvas to turn evenly, allowing him to create perfect circles and nesting wheels of color. Simmons has a fine eye for color; he moves from subtle tone gradations between adjacent circles to intense color contrasts. And while there is an illusionary effect to some of the paintings -some circles seem to recede and advance as you watch them - Simmons says optical illusion is not his primary intention.

In an interview Simmons said he's interested in how color works. "But I'm not trying to set up an illusion from the start. I like to improvise. The thing I really like about these paintings is that they let me use the materials. I spend a lot of time thinking about surface and texture."

Special awards

Simmons, who until last year had spent a couple of years painting flowers that looked like the ubiquitous daisy of the flower-power '60s era, was given a special recognition award in last fall's Seattle Art Museum Betty Bowen Award contest. Special awards are not usually given; the committee normally selects just one first-place winner.

But the committee this year also awarded several runner-up awards, one of which was given to Simmons for his new "spin" paintings. Simmons' oil-and-alkyd paintings are about the luxuriousness of materials and abstract composition. And despite his bull's-eye theme, they are not obsessive. The drips of paint that trickle down from his concentric circles are counterpoint to precision of the bull's-eye. These are paintings that force you to take notice.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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