Museums

The Persuasive Paintings of a Shamanistic Yenta

by Robert Moeller on December 24, 2013

Amy Sillman, "I" (2008), oil on canvas (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Amy Sillman, “I” (2008), oil on canvas (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“That’s the huge problem with an abstract painting. When are you done? You’re done when you don’t want to do it anymore.”

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — The above quote is something that Amy Sillman said in a New York Times piece earlier this year. It is just the sort of thing that, generally speaking, a painter would never say, at least publicly. The idea that a work may be finished before some mysterious visual and artistic calculus is complete tends toward the blasphemous. And, with a shrug of the shoulders, to simply imply that you are finished with a painting or drawing when you don’t want to work on it anymore — well, that’s just how Amy Sillman rolls …

And good for her, because this seeming nonchalance masks the grittiest sort of determination to get it right. The proportions of this correctness are all internally hers without the typical outside expectations of what a painter should and shouldn’t do.

In one lump or two, her first museum survey, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, there are drawings, cartoons, portraits, and abstractions — some 90 pieces altogether. Sillman, who lives and works in Brooklyn, comes across as a shamanistic yenta. Not a busybody in the traditional sense, but rather someone whose nonstop interior monologues burn through her work. In fact, you can almost hear her talking to herself as you circle through the exhibition. What she’s saying can be acutely funny, questioning, or, from a visual perspective, utterly spot on. Collected here, too, are zines she makes that give her “a chance to present one’s own epiphanies.” For anyone who hasn’t been paying much attention to her work lately, the show offers up a series of epiphanies as well.

Amy Sillman, "Williamsburg Portraits" (detail) (1991–92)

Amy Sillman, “Williamsburg Portraits” (detail) (1991–92)

Sillman is an artist who avoids perfection perfectly and finds beauty to be a shortcoming. She augers back and forth between figuration and abstraction, with hints of each present in some paintings like dollops of uncertainty. Hewing close to the bone, she is constantly asking questions of herself and her audience, a sort of visual therapy, if you will, before breaking the tension, like any good shrink, with a joke. Part of her work’s persuasiveness has to do with its durational qualities and the way that something “finished” can be augmented later, even improved upon.

Or crossed out, defaced but acknowledged. In Williamsburg Portraits, a series of drawings made in 1991–92, Sillman catalogues some of the artists living in Williamsburg at that time. What’s captured here, among other things, is frustration. Several of the portraits don’t work, but rather than fix them, Sillman writes across them: “Didn’t Work. No.” “This Painting was a Total Failure.” “I could not get this right.” Interestingly, what she chooses to rescue isn’t the image but the effort put into trying to create it.

In “Shade,” painted in 2010, traces of an older work (or so it seems) linger just below the surface, and what appears to be an arm enters from stage left clutching at a green orb of color that’s situated between a pair of legs. The painting is rife with messaging, but you’re not exactly sure of what sort. Is an itch being scratched or a testicle being removed? The work is funny and immediate, and since nothing certain is being articulated, a flurry of associations come to mind. The painting can also be read as a simple abstraction that strayed too close to the human form. In either case, Sillman uses humor as an entry point into the work and leaves it to the viewer to decipher her intent.

Amy Sillman, "Shade" (2010), oil on canvas

Amy Sillman, “Shade” (2010), oil on canvas

Also painted in 2010, “Nose” riffs on the supposed tensions between high and low art and the canonical distinctions that separate figuration from abstraction, thumbing its nose at you in the process. The painting is a bawdy celebration of the manner in which Sillman works. It’s not an either/or process put in play but an anything-goes medley that’s personal, quirky, and hard to pin down. Most artists would lose themselves in this sort of heady intersection, but Sillman thrives on diagraming the variety of experiences she’s trying to convey without ever sacrificing the visual acuity of what she makes.

Indeed, what’s most significant about her is just how resistant she is to limning down her approach or singling out a particular way to make things. Suffused with doubt, humor, and stubbornness, her work is dedicated to swerving in unconventional directions, right around any current expectations of what’s important. This unique take, hardly a strategic gambit, might have slowed the early recognition she was due, but that’s shifting now. This sampling of a remarkable body of work is a game-changer, a sentiment she would never acknowledge — because that’s just how Amy Sillman rolls…

Amy Sillman: one lump or two continues at the Institute of Contemporary Art (100 Northern Avenue, Boston) through January 5.

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