Sunday, March 2, 2014

Amy Sillman: one lump or two

Painting is perhaps more vital today than any time since the heyday of the New York School in the late 1940s and 1950s and Amy Sillman, the American painter who works in Brooklyn is one of its most influential practitioners and thinkers. Through her dramatic shifts in style, sophisticated writings, and her role as head of the painting program at Bard College's prestigious MFA program, she has proven that the basic building blocks of 20th-century painting are as relevant as ever.

I went to Boston during this Thanksgiving Break and visited the Institute of Contemporary Art there. That was how I got to know this artist and appreciated her works in Amy Sillman: one lump or two-- the artist's first museum survey. This exhibition follows her development as an artist from the mid-1990s to the present, as her work moved from drawing to painting to moving images, and from figuration to abstraction.

I was immediately attracted by her work, which is, to me, a perfect combination of figuration and abstraction, simple but deep and full of stories. Her works are big, confident and sensuous and can trigger all the joy, exuberance and imagination.

Me & Ugly Mountain, 2003
oil on canvas
Collection of Jerome and Ellen Stern

Above is a photo I took when I was at the exhibition of one of my favorite work of hers--- Me & Ugly Mountain.

In it, a lone figure drags behind her, by virtue of a thinly painted line, an enormous bundle of neurotic energy. Inside the transparent sack is a jumble of lines and shapes that cohere in to a bag of figures, a cacophony of people. Placed in front of the landscape and pressed up against the picture plane, the sack dominates the composition, its shape resembling an eye, mouth or breast. Inside the satchel, one can isolate individual figures, not that different from the comical personage who pulls them along.

I like it because her use of figuration and abstraction in this painting. She uses figuration on the lone figure and the background of the snow mountain, while she uses some abstraction when depicting the whole mess in the lone figure's head. This use of abstraction signifies the mess, complaints, worries and pain inside the lone figure's head. It also indicates that the bag of mess is not real, only abstract thoughts inside her head, but the beautiful snow mountains are true and should be appreciated.

"S", 2007

This work is very abstract and perfectly shows Sillman's value of painting. Some painters are on a quest for truth and beauty, however, through this painting we can conclude that Sillman is not one of them. Her affection of artworks, are "dirty", "backward" "not pleasant" and "amateurish". Her goal is not to shock the viewer, in the way of some contemporary art provocateurs. Sillman's medium could be said to be comic awkwardness as much as it is oil or ink. She is always interested in jokes and humors.

In her painting, there is often something off balance. We can see this painting, with its broad neon strokes, is off balance everywhere. Casual strokes form "S" everywhere, small or big, upward or downward. But when you focus on one particular "S" in it, other strokes that form other "S" become a framework that contains the former "S". Again, this multi-interpretation shows the deepness, convolution embedded under the simplicity and crudeness of her work.

The Elephant in the Room, 2006
oil on canvas

The elephant in the room which is a phrase that means something present but invisible, determinative but denied, served as the loaded title of what is in retrospect one of Sillman's key works--- a large and, for Sillman, uncharacteristically empty painting as shown above. Densely layered but sparingly drawn, the canvas features two perpendicular blocks of color--- opaque apricot in the canvas's lower portion and , atop that, a rectangle of gradated yellow--- that describe a space containing little more than what seems a slumping, implausibly green elephant trunk. In the manner of Cy Twombly's graffitied penis-breast notations, however, this appendage also reads alternately as a female nude and as something tumescently phallic. Significantly, this figure casts a shadow that partially but ominously occludes a sliver of translucent, pale purple and gray landscape, barely visible on the right.

The interpretation of Sillman herself about this painting is sex, however, viewers can also interprete the elephant as something else. Again, this kind of combination of abstraction and figuration leaves great space for us to imagine and interprete by ourselves.


The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. "Amy Sillman: one lump or two, west gallery, October 3- January 5, 2014". <>
Loos, Ted. "Blobs and Slashes, Interrupted by Forms". The New York Times, September 26, 2013. <>
Smee, Sebastian. "Witty and bright, Amy Sillman's work is freshly urgent." The Boston Globe, October 5, 2013. <>
Norden, Linda. "Amy Sillman: The Elephant in the Painting". ARTFORUM International, February 2007. <>

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