In one of Amy Sillman’s recent paintings, a despondent female figure literally puts her shoulder to a mountain of problems. Straining against a roughly drawn thought-balloon, Sillman’s cartoony figure pulls at a bubble that preposterously includes a snow bank, a cluster of fir trees and part of the Earth’s crust alongside what is evidently the full complement of the artist’s anxieties–personal, psychological and, not least of all, painterly.
A picture of the artist taking out the trash like few others in memory, Sillman’s painting, aptly titled Me & Ugly Mountain, invokes the classic dilemma of the artist inside what is, on occasion, the loneliest place in the world: the artist’s studio. Philip Guston, a man who knew something about being left alone in a room with his own thoughts, described the experience as like being locked up with all the world’s artists and having to drag them out of the room one by one. Sillman, for her part, prefers stuffing her problems into a single metaphorical sack filled to bursting. The notion that she repeatedly drags it around to construct her compelling if obscure narratives is at least one Sisyphean reading of Me & Ugly Mountain.
An artist very much in the vein of Surrealism’s less flashy, more self-effacing variant–which includes artists like Miro and Klee–Sillman is a painter as seriously committed to a notion of play as Pee-Wee Herman was once to a weekday matinee. Sillman’s work recalls Paul Klee’s definition of his own famously hieroglyphic style–"taking a line for a walk." Her faux naïf figures, landscapes and doodles accrue with an autonomous magic that is two-fourths the product of hard-won invention and one-fourth learning from her painterly forebears. The missing fraction, without which Sillman’s work would be merely interesting, is an ingrained sense of improvisation with roots in both the artist’s genuine goofiness and in her philosophical, reflexively doubtful, nearly contrarian hesitation.
Sillman is a creator not so much of painterly strategies but of an unspooling cosmogony within which she locates her characters, marks and influences. She’s certainly not the first artist to adopt the primitively drawn, pop-inflected, colorful figure to the idiom of contemporary drawing and painting, yet among her generation she is one of its earliest, most impure pioneers. Think of younger artists like Barry McGee, Yoshimoto Nara, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Chris Johansen–and of the subcultures that can overdetermine and undermine their work–and you have some of the runners-up to Sillman’s deeply anti-essentialist oeuvre. Not a feminist, a slacker, a politico or a comic buff, Sillman can suggest none of these or all of them at once. The irreducible, unfixed and unlocatable nature of her project is exactly where the enduring charm of her pictures lay.
"Partly cartoon, partly lament, partly grudge," as this highly verbal artist describes her work, Sillman’s paintings and works on paper are unpredictable yet always recognizable as her own. Brimming with explosions of color in cake-frosting hues and an irregular, bristling line, Sillman takes up the injunction of the late Guston on how to banish a certain kind of painterly refinement to acquire sophistication of a more bootstrapping sort: "I imagine wanting to paint as a cave man would… I should like to paint like a man who has never seen a painting." It goes without saying that it requires an extreme esthetic sophistication to paint as if every canvas is its own primitive beginning.
This is Sillman’s hard-won gift, one that she continually pushes in many directions at once but also one that she applies with particular success in her new exhibition at the Brent Sikkema Gallery in Chelsea. Her gouaches and paintings are weirdly channeled outpourings of her conscious, unconscious and artistic life (the link to the largely untapped tradition of Surrealism is never far) and have long been presented in loose groupings. When viewed as interconnected wholes, they can feel like the painterly equivalent of run-on sentences. Her new paintings, on the other hand, present something of a significant departure. The larger canvases are denser and concentrated beyond what would seem reasonably possible; they sing with manic, Tourette’s-like energy while describing weirdly ordered universes that are as off-kilter as anything produced by Adolf Wölfli.
A painting like Hamlet lays several layers of frantic painterly activity one on top of the other and is less ephemeral and more diamantine than Sillman’s past work. Pink trees, white mountains and orange boils sit atop a strata of looping Brice Marden pasta lines in bright colors. That layer is followed by another horizontal wedge of blocks in blue, purple and green undergirded, in turn, by two footed figures with globes for heads and a field of creamy painterly erasures. In composition, it’s tight as a drum. A painting like Hamlet leaves a funky puzzle with regard to its stacked geology. Does there need to be an answer for every little thing in a universe as fun-loving and knowingly haphazard as Sillman’s?
This critic’s answer is a resounding no.
Sillman has previously characterized painting as "a performative record of not knowing where you’re going," an adventurous if somewhat hard-bitten notion that squares perfectly with the vaguely Dantean striations she has imposed upon her usual cast of stick figures, bubble heads and pastel squibs recently. Take the painting Unearth, for example. A riotous canvas with an unusually heavy Augustinian City of Man vs. City of God implications, it depicts a patchwork world of blocky, variegated color complete with marching people, animals, a mountain and some sort of derrick literally superceded by a combination radiant sun and starship straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Unearth is a painting that, like Sillman’s best, takes an irreverent path toward the very serious business of wonderment and points directly to the sort of intelligence excellent painters always display behind their work. Sillman’s generous impulse to keep her project radically open-ended means that what we witness when we confront her paintings is the radical and furious editing of a natural Whitmanite. The naive and the sophisticated, the painterly and the personal, the clever and the stupid, the elevated and the scatological, the high and low–all of it is threshed together and recombined in inspired paintings that demand the sort of attention only deeply unfamiliar pictures require. And that, in a word, is a wonderful thing.
"Amy Sillman: I am curious (yellow)," through Fri., May 23 at Brent Sikkema, 530 W. 22nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 212-929-2262.