Return to Articles


March 26 - May 30, 2009, at Sherry Frumkin Gallery, Santa Monica

by Bill Lasarow

Marking the passage of time and accretions of mark making form the central equation of Doni Silver Simons’ current paintings. To this the artist has held firm for over thirty years, though for much of that time she held back from making this the declarative component of her primary interest, which for years lay in site specific and performance based projects. Well, if the likes of Agnes Martin, Hanna Darboven and Margit Omar could build distinguished careers on just this premise, why has Simons only recently emerged from a closet that was essentially of her own making? The emergence of modern feminism together with the ascendance of minimalism nearly half a century ago provided important context to work that was, at the time, quite eye-opening. Serial mark making that was so clearly labor intensive, yet which rejected drama and pyrotechnics at first appears empty before revealing depth.

The nature of this type of work continues to serve as a cultural counterpoint to the emphasis on speed and gratification that popular culture routinely competes to deliver, and which visual art often emulates. The metaphor that could only be speculatively invoked in the past was the programmatic nature of the digital environment. We, and Simons, live on the other side of that divide today, and the questions that Simons raises with these images are along the lines of: what if we return with this knowledge to the caves of our pre-history? What if we are locked in solitary confinement with only what is in our head to live with from day to day?

The simple vertical mark, in horizontal rows and often with the diagonal slash forming bundles of five that we associate with primitive counting, is the identifying element in this work. The counting function is subordinated to an accumulated visual effect. The aggregate may occupy foreground or background space, or appear more singularly and aggressively as a physical cut or an affixed object. Titles are numerical, not only suppressing the individuality of a given image but steering us away from the temptation to see an intended expression or a narrative out of the marching lines in spite of their handmade variations.

The most striking area of visual association lies in the surfaces, which are always richly modulated, but function as grounds. You will see the moldy wall of a cave (“040-020”), palimpsests found on the walls of an ancient city (“040-016”), murky atmospheres (“030-410”), or land- and seascapes (“030-401” and “030-402” respectively) without stretching very hard. The hordes of lines set below, over and through these surfaces place emotional weight into the background. Each element is a predetermined premise; the indeterminate lies in how they are combined and the ritual vagaries of execution. If there is a distinction between light hearted whimsy and dead earnest seriousness it lies buried in the shifting sands of the moment.

“The Last Variation,” 2008,
acrylic on canvas, 84  x 140”.

“040-020,” 2008,
acrylic on paper.

“030-410,” 2008, acrylic
on canvas, 30 x 30”.

“030-402,” 2008, acrylic
on canvas, 30 x 30”.

“050-003,” 2008, acrylic
on canvas, 75 x 89”.

So the marks that Simons produces know what they are about, where they are going, but in a context that amounts to a backdrop of uncertainty; and that is what lends this body of work its distinction. By rights these paintings should add up to a scream of restraint trying to escape its own self imposed boundaries. Instead it is, well, reasonable. Feeling is a buzz, compositions are clear and relaxed. The artist’s self imposed constraints may have, in an earlier phase, been exposed as control from above, but by now the control comes from within. No sudden epiphany allows for arrival at this point, nor does this work take a radical leap from the above noted antecedents. And this is precisely where its aesthetic identity lies; not as a spectacular breakthrough, but of depth that has been won an inch at a time.