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Issue 54 September-October 2000 RSS

Amy Sillman

Brent Sikkema Gallery, New York, USA

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In Amy Sillman’s paintings abstract and figurative elements converge in whimsical, almost hallucinogenic, scenarios. Occupied by Lilliputian cosmologies of plants and animals, disembodied heads and preternatural beings, the paintings portray primordial experiences of birth, survival, copulation, conquest and death. In the midst of these visually serene but psychologically charged tableaux, Sillman imbues paint with anthropomorphic zeal. Culled from a lexicon of Formalist motifs, strokes and blobs, flat expanses and geometric shapes are injected with signs of life and narrative possibility. Rather than paint giving shape to figure, the inhabitants of Sillman’s paintings seem to have parthenogenically emerged to take-over and manipulate the medium. Like science fiction depictions of the fourth dimension, ordinary folk are confronted by impossible spaces and the laws of physics are stretched and bent beyond recognition.

Skirmishes of an Untimely Nature (all works 2000), a hybrid mix of visual rhetoric, is vertically divided into two warm and cool colour fields - an especially notable example of Sillman’s double entendres. The warm side is dominated by a broad flat expanse of pink, while the other side, a crudely painted waterscape, extends towards a horizon line. Perched on top of the water as if on solid ground is a peculiar assembly of animals who defy gravity and pictorial perspective. The creatures in the foreground are represented by naive line drawings. As they retreat towards the horizon and diminish in size, they morph into yellow blobs of paint. This shift in style demonstrates how our reading of abstraction relies on context - interpretation is shaped by where we are located spatially (and cognitively). Like pre-scripted Rorschach tests, blobs of paint look like animals, while the animals, in turn, are spectators waiting to see what’s going to happen on the other side of the canvas.

Running along the seam that divides the painting, a pattern of crescent lines signifies a fence. Abutting part of the fence is an amorphous triangle of orange, yellow and blue paint strokes which taper into a serpentine limb and creep towards the top edge of the canvas. Blasting their way through the fence and into the triangle, are a group of gesticulating figures. A host of possible meanings are elicited by this image - a phallus-shaped mine shaft colonised by enthusiastic little men penetrates a colourful triangle on a pink background. It’s probably not necessary to state the obvious.

On the right edge of the canvas, a barrage of spiky green and brown branch-like protrusions ominously jut into the space. The bursting outgrowth of flora and the watchful gaze of the animals echo the expedition of little men as they burrow from one side of the canvas to the other. Bridging the two parts, the tunnel also acts as an architectural joint, aesthetically adhering the two sides of the painting.

Freudian Slip is similarly divided into warm and cool expanses, although the axis is horizontal, splitting tangerine earth and blue sky. Two forms emerge from the earth. Issuing from the centre is a totem-like column of colour blocks which references Mondrian. Towards the right edge sprouts a smaller wraith-shaped tree, in the cusp of which, a dejected, naked female figure gazes down at her reflection in a pool of water. The hilly horizon is ridged by a medley of disembodied heads. Greek chorus, gathering of saints, jury or audience - whatever their role, these heads are all witnesses to a private predicament. The large colour blocks which dominate the landscape look like parodies of Modernism. In hyperbolic contrast, the totemic structure dwarfs the woman and tree. However, like the tunnel image in Skirmishes, the column metaphorically and visually bridges the two elements of the painting, earth and sky.

The contemporary Eve figure, whose pudenda is shielded by underwear instead of a fig leaf, occupies the branches. Although an image of a solitary tree is typically an archetypal representation of life, the tree of paradise that bore the fruit of knowledge also harboured the seeds of Eve’s demise. Both connotations are implicit in Sillman’s tree, which ironically replaces the Christian cross as a scaffold for public decree. Exposed to the hapless chorus of heads, her nudity and self-reflection are fodder for public scrutiny. Among other things, this mock martyr scene can be interpreted as a commentary on the way women’s self-images have been commandeered by the public gaze.

Parodying Freudian notions and the implicit failure of consciousness to keep the unconscious under wraps, Sillman’s pictures are all about slips. As she has said, ‘Painting is a record of not knowing where you’re going’. It’s not surprising, then, that as we slip along the tracks the artist has left in her paintings, we encounter a visual language that yokes meaning to a common context. Like Sillman’s microcosms, ‘life in a nutshell’ (as one painting is titled), real life is as familiar as it is unpredictable.

Shonagh Adelman

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First published in
Issue 54, September-October 2000

by Shonagh Adelman

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