Gretchen Dow Simpson

From Art in America - June, 1997
Gretchen Dow Simpson at Mary Ryan

A longtime contributor of cover art to The New Yorker, Gretchen Dow Simpson has developed so distinctive a style that Absolut chose to honor her in one of its signature vodka ads. In her fourth solo exhibition at Mary Ryan, the Rhode Island-based Simpson showed 16 small oil paintings completed last year and a group of silkscreens from 1991-86. Besides the architectural studies that are her stock-in-trade, the show featured several still lifes, including a pair of O'Keeffe-like plant forms and a couple of land-scapes.

The geometry of man-made structures, especially New England architecture, remains Simpson's strong suit. Choosing to pay tribute to those rather Protestant exteriors and interiors that Edward Hoper was so taken with, she has found much of her subject matter along the eastern seaboard, from Block Island up to Islesboro off the coast of Maine. Works such as Between Daylight and Night Vision, which measure 9 by 9 and 9 1/2 by 14 1/2 inches respectively, relect this ongoing passion, focusing on the corners of summer-house porches. In Night Vision, a white picket fence gleams in the night, as if caught in the glare of passing headlights.

Further afield, Simpson has gathered ideas in Europe, Morocco and, more recently, Mexico, which inspired several pieces in this exhibition. Sombras depict the side of a pink stucco structure accented by shadows. The empty plaza in Arrival, another Mexican image, is distinctly Chirico-esque.

Polished is an adjective that comes to mind when viewing Simpson's paintings. Indeed, the work is often slick. In her hands, the rugged slopes of Mount Washington in New Hampshire are rendered in a stylized manner, while an arrangement of gourds, apples and squash has a Georges de la Tour glow. This cleanliness, if you will, is redoubled in the silkscreens., where houses, a pier, American flags and other subjects are fixed in the realm of commercial graphics.

Yet Simpson can also be quirky and dark, and it is these works that linger in the mind. Sierra Gorda is a non-view -- the edge of a highway with blasted rock and stanchions -- that intrigues by its very spareness. Aura could pass for a Hopper hotel piece, a dreary corridor bathed in yellowish light, except that a woven pocket book hangs from a wall fixture. This detail lends mystery to the scene -- and makes it memorable.

- Carl Little

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