A tense back and forth – between figuration that never fully asserts itself and abstraction that is brimming with recognizable forms – is just one of the contradictory aspects that characterize Amy Sillman’s work. Others include petulantly jarring colours, which combine the shrill with the grotty, and a vigorous wrangling between drawing or colour as the guiding force of the composition. In this solo show, the artist’s third in Berlin (although widely exhibited in galleries and institutions in the USA, she has had only a handful of solo shows to date in Europe), the inevitable references to her AbEx forebears were worn lightly, like comical asides or dangling possibilities. Meanwhile serious questions were posed about the awkward unreliability of bodies: how they look from the outside, how they feel from the inside, how they coexist and interrelate. In Clubfoot (all works 2011), cartoonish outlined forms double-up as perspectival devices, rudely drawn limbs or rawly rendered fragments of gestural abstraction. In the absence of any singular definitive, the masterpiece is ruled out as a possibility, and the work is free to be messy and playful and to roam productively around unresolved problems of form or meaning which underlie painting’s troubled representational terrain.
At her last show in Berlin (at Galerie Carlier | Gebauer in 2009), Sillman showed paintings alongside comic diagrams and self-produced zines – a self-conscious strategy aimed at letting some air into the stuffy atmosphere of abstraction for a German audience largely unfamiliar with her work. A similar aim was more successfully achieved this time with the inclusion of an animated video shown on a small flat-screen – Pinky’s Rule – which is the result of a collaboration with the New York poet Charles Bernstein. Using only her little finger, Sillman made drawings on her iPhone in response to a poem written by Bernstein; he then developed the poem in response to her drawings. The endless morphing of imagery in the video – with shapes turning into figures or objects being obliterated or rediscovered – echoes the interrelation of words and images, though it’s no longer clear which came first. Viewers saw the imagery but could not hear the poem, although a copy was available to read at the front desk in the gallery. The video operated as a stand-alone elucidation of the quick-fire transition between figure and form, colour and line – an evolution of imagery that underlies all of Sillman’s paintings.
The paintings in this exhibition are more pared-down than those of three or four years ago, reduced to accumulations of rather angular forms and a more streamlined palette (mauve and beige being particular favourites, as in Things Fall Apart). The edges of the paintings hold clues about the many different previous versions that Sillmann makes and remakes, but the surface has been sanded down often so that this memory is more a ghostly trace than a material presence on the thin and scumbled surfaces. In another high-low sidestep typical of the politically alert Sillman, the gallery’s upstairs room was filled with around 200 inkjet prints which were selected from the over 2,000 iPhone drawings made for Pinky’s Rule and were pinned loosely to the walls. Each of these vividly coloured sketches was available to buy for the price of its printing costs: $42. This information is stamped on the back of each print in a text by Sillman, who also requests that the work not be resold for more than this amount – a plain attempt to prevent its absorption by a speculative art market and to counterbalance the high value of the oil on canvases downstairs.
The self-deprecation suggested by this gesture pervades Sillman’s work, as a kind of fully embraced embarrassment, which is most obvious in her depiction of the body but also touches on the idea of abstraction or indeed painting itself. While ostensibly concerned with human foibles, the clumsiness of love and the ugliness of the body, her works speak just as much about painterly foibles and the clumsiness and ugliness of paint.