Perfect Circles

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.

Perfect Circles