SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO. | FEBRUARY 4 – MARCH 12, 2016
More than a hundred drawings, a dozen paintings, two videos, and a zine populate Stuff Change, Amy Sillman’s first solo show in New York in six years. It comes on the heels of her first museum retrospective, one lump or two (The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2013 – 2014), and her inclusion in two major museum painting shows, Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Painting (LACMA, 2014 – 2015) and the much criticized Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World (MoMA, 2014 – 2015). As the title of her ICA retrospective suggests, Sillman embraces ambivalence and alternate readings. In fact, in much of the critical writing on her work, dichotomies are used to frame Sillman’s concerns, in the hope that articulation leads to elucidation: Abstract/Figurative. Cartoonish/Painterly. Fast/Slow. Digital/Physical. Drawing/Painting. I use the word ambivalence to suggest the simultaneity of conflicted feelings, that one can feel two ways (Latin: ambos, meaning two) equally (Latin: valence, strength), rather than fall into the either/or binary that such dichotomies suggest. This is the strength of the work, that it never falls into a single myopic category—that, in fact, it resists an either/or, that it defies easy categorization.
It is one thing to have a painting that is confidently ambivalent, and quite another to have a studio practice that is ambivalent with fierce conviction and humor. Sillman has both. Her paintings resemble palimpsests; her previous colors and forms are barely visible below the last surface of the painting, hinting at decisions made and then unmade. Though Sillman’s work often seems to be finished with a few quick strokes of a large brush, the underlying oranges, whites, and grays belie this quickness and provide subtle value changes within the blocky forms that comprise the final layers of Finger x 2 and Untitled (Blue with Legs), both 2015. This repeated layering, covering and recovering, relates to Sillman’s notion of time. Like land filled with garbage and sacred objects left by previous populations, Sillman’s paintings can be excavated with the eye. In this regard, she responds to de Kooning, whose thickly painted pictures (both abstract and figurative) retain the marks of their previous states.
Sillman stops only when she feels she has surprised herself by finding unlikely forms and color combinations. She eschews the practice of color theory (Albers, Itten), instead inventing mash-ups that produce unexpected, titillating results. Unexpected combinations, such as the complementary turquoise/red whose values are the same in Split x 2 (2015), activate the carefully orchestrated forms. Split x 2’s composition approaches a colored reinterpretation of a black and white Franz Kline painting.
Sillman repeats a pair of shapes in many of the paintings (Untitled (Blue with Legs), Split x 2, Back of a Horse Costume x 2 (2015 – 2016), Table 2) to hint at different structures: a table’s legs, an invented figure’s legs. Though reminiscent of the silhouette of a graceful, tapered set of table legs, these forms are clunky and compelling, making the space of the works equally architectural and psychological. With its king’s blue and odd composition, a view of the top of a table creates an unexpected emptiness. Sillman revisits this form in a drawing that hangs next to one of her paintings, refracting it to create a jaunty three-legged figure (3-Legged, (2011)). Alternately blue, black, white, green, and pink, these legs look like a refined, smoothed version of the blobby forms in one of the most energetic, and earliest, paintings in the show, Tough Girls (2014 – 2015). Here, muted pinks, purples, and whites wonderfully contrast the aggressive orange discharging in aggressive, staccato brushstrokes from the top right corner. This adroitly awkward painting puts Sillman in conversation with Philip Guston, who often relied on a confidently curving black line to delineate his impasto forms, locking them into the picture plane. In this new body of work, then, Sillman is taking on the masculine canon of AbEx painters (de Kooning, Guston, Franz Kline).
Sillman’s almost compulsive desire to surprise herself means that she is constantly adapting her practice, expanding it into new modes of making. On view in the gallery’s foyer is a short video (Reel of the Bathtub Drawings (2015)) in which Sillman’s black-and-white drawings, hung just across the room, cycle through a loop. The video plays on a square TV, giving it a material presence that the video Trailer for Ovid’s Metamorphosis (2015 – 16), in the gallery’s back room, displayed on a flat screen on a wall, lacks. Trailer transitions between drawings so quickly that it is impossible to take in a single image of the drawings; it focuses attention on the cartoonish figures that endlessly throw rocks. What we get from thisanimated short is the energy, frenzy even, that seems to fuel Sillman’s prolific practice.
In the final room, fourteen paintings rest on a white wooden base, installed as one (Panorama (Selection of 14 from a series of printed and painted works) (2015)). Sillman has used an inkjet printer to print forms onto each 79-by-59-inch canvas. She then paints on top of these forms, alternately eradicating them, enlarging them, and leaving portions exposed. Whereas her other paintings are oil on canvas, with these, Sillman uses water-based mediums, including gouache, acrylic, and ink, to achieve a loose translucency. The colors of this series depart from the harsher and more saturated ones of the oil paintings; this series favors delicate pinks and carmines, subtle browns and ochres, lovely grays, and gauzy whites. Yet the installation completely surrounds the viewer, like the Bayeux Tapestry or an unfurled scroll, making for an almost overwhelming experience that undercuts the expected beauty of these subtle colors. Panorama marks a different notion of Sillman’s preoccupation with time than what we see in her oil paintings. Here, she exchanges layers for a continuum, and abandons compacted, archeological time for an expanded chronology to achieve an effect that feels filmic rather than still.
Completely enveloped in the world of Amy Sillman, it’s dizzying to try tracking the “stuff change”—what she shifts and what remains—from one work to the next. Her work doesn’t speak to any teleology or any Modernist goal. Rather, as a whole, it registers an artist’s earnest exploration of color, form, scale, installation. In this exploration, Sillman hides little from the viewer, allowing a window into a practice that refuses to remain static in its mediums or its language. Her paintings often look as if they were drawn, her drawings are reused in videos, and her forms reappear in different numbers and in new orientations. And everything is given equal weight because it all contributes to this experiment, which remains open enough to allow us to see the strength of the work: the ambivalence, the equality allowed to conflicting interpretations, the desire to find something new, and, in turn, to surprise us.
KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.