BY Amy Sillman in Features | 10 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 22

Shit Happens

Notes on Awkwardness

BY Amy Sillman in Features | 10 NOV 15

George Grosz, The Painter of the Hole I, 1948, oil on canvas, 77  × 56  cm

‘… but what do such large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?’
Henry James, from the Preface to The Tragic Muse, 1908

The first question confronting artists is, ‘what should I do’? And the next question is, ‘what would make it better’? Is this ‘aesthetics’? I don’t know – but I know that we are no longer making things for the Beaux Arts, for truth, beauty, elevation or virtuosity. Yet the familiar forms of what could be called ‘negative aesthetics’ also fail to adequately describe what a lot of artists are doing in their studios. Dada, the readymade, ‘bad painting’, the Dandy, ‘provisional’ painting, deskilling, etc. – none of these ring quite right in accounting for something I would call negativity-at-work, the arduous search for form, the feelings of dissatisfaction, the endless decisions and changes that constitute the work of various artists. How to discuss this, without resorting to a cliché of artistic work? What is everyone doing, and how do they decide to make it ‘better’?

We are trying to surprise ourselves and that is hard to do. I think it is a kind of metabolism that drives me to change and change and change my forms, searching rather earnestly for something I don’t quite know already, a kind of questioning machine, endlessly discontent. I would say that form is the shape of my discontent, and that what interests me is how form can match that feeling or condition – of funny, homely, lonely, ill-fitting, strange, clumsy things that feel right. In other words, a form that tries to find itself outside of what is already okay. Awkwardness is the name I would give this quality, this thing that is both familiar and unfamiliar.

The internet tells me that ‘awkward’ comes from an Old Norse word, afugr, meaning ‘turned the wrong way’. In Middle English, awk is backwards, clumsy. Art school used to be where you learned how to make things well, but most people (outside of some academies) nowadays are masters-of-none. On the other hand, the ‘deskilling’ discourse just doesn’t account for what I’m talking about. There’s this diligence, this nerdiness to the search; it is a demanding job to attempt Beckett’s fail-better. Paintings can look good just after one stroke. What urge makes you want to do something that pushes further, on towards contingency, clumsiness, strangeness or even brutality? Awkwardness is that thing, which is fleshy, funny, downward-facing, uncontrollable; it is an emotional or even philosophical state of being, against the great and noble, and also against the cynical. It is both positive and negative, with its own dialect and dialectic.

Amy Sillman, Someone Else, 2014, oil on canvas, 1.9 × 1.7 m

There was a time in the ’90s when, as a younger artist, I started to be invited to panels about ‘beauty’ and ‘visual pleasure’. People were trying to reclaim some idea about pleasure for political purposes, sometimes with a feminist agenda. People assumed that as a painter and feminist, I would be interested in these discussions, but instead I would find myself quiet, sullen, usually blurting out at some point that I couldn’t give a shit about beauty. They would look at me: what, then, was I looking for? I came up with the idea of hatred – a shortcut for sure, but I didn’t really know how else to say it. I just knew that attractiveness was the enemy. I recently heard Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi give a talk about not working (something that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you actually like ‘working’ in your studio). Finally he made a distinction between work and art, saying that to make art is to make something beautiful, meaningful, erotic, empathic – and as usual, when this is the language used to describe what we’re doing, I wanted to barf. We’re not making sexy beasts. If anything, call it libido instead of erotics – but we want an art also animated by ugliness, destruction, hatred, struggle. Punk seems as close as one can get to describe it, but what could be less punk than staying up late in a studio trying hard to make a ‘better’ oil painting? That’s so earnest, so caring – with a smock, and our tongue between our teeth, paintbrush poised, trying so hard – like the artists in a Jerry Lewis movie. So what are we doing? I can still only call it looking for this fragile thing that is awkwardness. This is not alienated labor, nor a commodity precisely, but a need, a way of churning the world, as your digestive system churns food.

I spent last year reading Ovid, and was excited to learn about a Roman poetry metre called choliambic, or ‘lame iambic’, in which the stress at the end of the line purposefully comes down on the ‘wrong’ foot, giving the line an unexpected little thud or sonic punch: da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum — DUM. The off-beat turns around and questions the whole rest of the line, and is therefore a signal of the poet’s aggression or satire. The idea of an ignoble form, named for limping, put me in mind of the way Mr. Hulot walks in Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Mr. Hulot’s funny walk is a running gag throughout the film, a symptom marking his difference from the rest of the bourgeois holiday-goers. He skitters along like a sand crab, and ends up alone, even though he gets a dance with the pretty girl at the costume ball. Tati’s movies deftly portray the comic mechanics of modern living, almost as illustrations of Henri Bergson’s quotient for the comic, the starting point for which is ‘something mechanical encrusted upon the living’. In the digital age, this relationship also goes the other way around: the living weight of the body is encrusted like a barnacle upon the perfection of the algorithm. Just having a body is a daily comedy. From the control tower of the head, one gazes downward, always downward, upon this ‘loose baggy monster’ that we find ourselves in, this laughable casement that is the body below, as ankles swell, farts are emitted, rolls of fat jut out, the penis does its own thing. Shit happens and then you die.

It’s not an accident that people use ‘awkward!’ after a faux pas, a moment of tension between the ideal and the real, where what’s supposed to happen goes awry. The real, like the body, is embarrassing: your hand is too moist, your fly is open, there turns out to be something on your nostril, somebody blurts out something that I wasn’t supposed to know, your ex-partner shows up with their new lover (and your work is uncool). But you’re stuck there. That tension is what abstraction is partly about: the subject no longer entirely in control of the plot, representation peeled away from realness. This ambivalent state is precisely the state of mind for making a painting, being stuck with the uncertain future of the loveable, but fallible, body that is the artwork. Oil painters work with a substance that’s low anyway: putty, shit, dirt, mud that is scraped, pushed, smeared, scumbled into form. After a while, your body is the partner to the materials, you are the medium as well as the tool, the boundaries between you and your object become unclear, mirroring or antagonizing each other. The art-making process is a record­ing of these restless interactions between subject and object on a par with one another, locked together. In fact, really, improvisation is about working between subject and object; the object is merely a place through which questions are addressed. Perhaps this is particular to abstract painting, where you often don’t really ‘know’ what you’re doing, and so you are doomed to work in between hoping and groping. In abstraction, time goes by in fits and starts, with resistance of materials being part of that time. Like the body, you look down at your creation and think, ‘My god, you are ugly’.

Philip Guston, Feet on Rug, oil on canvas, 1978, 2 × 2.6 m

I know of no artist who is attempting to make something more beautiful, but I do know many artists who are looking for a form that ‘feels right’ without knowing why. Maybe it’s just satisfying to see something productive come of feeling like an idiot and the accompanying feeling of embarrass­ment. Isn’t embarrassment what Kafka’s Metamorphosis is partly about? The book matter-of-factly narrates Gregor Samsa’s miserable discovery that he is a bug, while the real drama is the Samsa family’s embarrassment to be living with a bug, and their relief when Gregor finally dies. He literally dies of embarrassment, because the family no longer knows how to take care of him.

Kafka’s bug, a good example of making do with what you’re stuck with when you’ve got a body, is a contrast to the much-cited Bartleby position of ‘I’d prefer not to’, an aesthetic style of negation. The awkwardness I’m trying to describe is not a style, but could be one result of a dialectic. I would rather call it a metabolism: the intimate and discom­forting process of things changing as they go awry, look uncomfortable, have to be confronted, repaired, or risked, i.e., the process of trying to figure something out while doing it. I don’t know if that’s abstraction, but I know it’s awkward. Finding a form is building these feelings (in this case, dissatisfaction, embarrassment and doubt) into a substance. This is a very fragile thing to do.

Amy Sillman is a painter based in New York City.