A Stumblebum’s Progress


Amy Sillman paints in one of the weirder gaps in recent art: between Philip Guston’s early abstract impressionistic canvases and his later bulbous figurative ones. Or, more precisely, she’s trying to couple the two. Fields of spumy paint and loopy figures coexist in and create enigmatic pictorial spaces. Grace and gawkiness commingle. I’ve always relished Sillman’s way of combining painting and drawing, her cursory physicality, and her chancy habit of creating different problems to solve within single paintings. She’s a maestro of the ham-handed, an awkward natural. Yet her work has often seemed indecisive or indistinct—lacking some essential density, frankness, or finality. The parts were nice but an entirety never gelled. Caught in a discontinuity of her own making, her paintings have either seemed too illustrational and doodle-y cute, or generically abstract.

That’s changing. Although these problems are still evident in “I am curious (yellow),” her porn-meets-color-titled current show at Sikkema, Sillman, 47, is as close as she’s ever been to reconciling her differences. Her work has gained solidity. Surfaces are richer, ropier, more varied; her color less murky, prettier, yet not merely sweet. She still hasn’t managed a final image that sticks in the mind, and I wish she’d occasionally paint bigger, but she’s no longer so reliant on fussy painterliness or surrealistic formula (except in her drawings).

I’m not addressing the 65-foot-long, 16-panel Letters From Texas, other than to say that, except for a spattering of adroit passages and some nifty cinematic jump-cutting, it’s monotonous and safe, and threatens to neutralize this show. Nevertheless, four of her six new biggish canvases really hum (and the other two aren’t bad, either). In the limpid Hamlet, the palette is a gauche but fetching combination of minty green, Creamsicle pink, saffron, and a wonderful creamy, Stettheimer white. An elongated Giacometti, or Enzo Cucchi-like figure reclines on a tilting horizon near the top of the picture. This creature’s feet—a woman’s, presumably, because a rosy evergreen grows from between her spherical breasts—are propped against the right-hand edge of the painting. Her head rests against the left. The word Good-bye is faintly visible near her mouth. A pole coming out of her body with a head atop it has the word Hello written nearby. Two other horizontal figures inhabit the lower half of the picture. Good-bye is written backward in a floating ball.

Writers insist that Sillman’s paintings are “psychologically fraught” and “extremely emotional.” They’re not. Her storytelling is remote at best and her allusions to the human condition, in spite of their apparent sincerity, are nevertheless constrained and distant. Hamlet works not because of the quirky narrative elements but for formal reasons: the tilting plane of wispy, calligraphic, Brice Marden-esque shapes and lines that bisect its space and set up a marvelous dreamy landscape; the flowery Stettheimer/Cassett pastel palette; the nice out-of-kilter clutter of the composition; the agitated hand.

This zesty combination is also present in Me & Ugly Mountain. Here, Sillman seems to say, “This is what it’s like to be a painter.” A little cartoony figure (Sillman?) pulls a huge, globular shape (art history?) across a snowy tundra. It’s tender, but again it’s the gummy white, the mottled surface, and her febrile touch that makes the painting click. Ditto Unearth, in which a city lies below a radiant sun. Between them is a shape that resembles a window shade with a drawstring. Simultaneously clumsy and beautiful, the painting is Guston by way of Verne Dawson, Chris Johanson, Dana Schutz, and Monty Python.

March is divided into three planes. A Twombly-esque chrysanthemum or explosion hovers above a cinnamon-colored volcanic tower. An artery tunnels from this cone shape to the picture’s lowest section, where a marvelous melee of fleshy, clunky paint strokes morphs into an Alice-in-Wonderland army of metaphysical beings and odd shapes. Finally, Kinaynahora, a stripped-down picture of two houses with a transparent egg-thing below the horizon, isn’t the best painting here, and it does feel incomplete, but it is the least Sillman-like, the most contemporary looking, and shows her investigating new spatial solutions.

Sillman’s art is obviously of its own time. Yet it’s not connected to the current trend for using the photograph in painting, or to Photoshop abstraction. She describes her work as “shaggy,” “built for comfort, not speed.” Indeed, next to younger artists she can seem old school. Compared to someone like Luc Tuymans, also 47, whose moody new paintings are on view at David Zwirner, and who is always showing you he knows what he’s doing and doing it extremely well, Sillman is more eccentric and erratic. Rather than lording over you with her style, like Tuymans (who is continuously trying to remind you he’s Richter’s heir apparent), Sillman is indifferent to Richter, and always experimenting, failing occasionally, and looking for openings. She may be less accomplished, current, or enigmatic than Tuymans, but she’s rougher and always in touch with her inner stumblebum.

This is paying off. For better and worse, Sillman is doing something somewhat atypical: She’s putting her foot in any camp she wants. As we know from Guston, and more lately from someone like Laura Owens, this kind of freedom—handled aptly—can be powerful. Here’s hoping Sillman gets where she’s trying to go.

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