Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Amy Sillman

With a flat brush or maybe an oil stick, Amy Sillman scrawls lines up, down, and across the canvas, then paints in blocks of color, then draws more. Figures often emerge from this process, and one finds appendages and heads emerging from the dense clouds of brushstrokes.

The ghost of Guston appears in many of the paintings. In "Untitled", the brushy blocks of color recall Guston's abstractions from the mid-60s. And then in "The Plumbing" and "A Bird in the Hand," Sillman connects to Guston's later fixation on outstretched arms clutching objects.

An abstract figure in motion in "The Elephant in the Room" reminds us of Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," or even a futurist abstraction. A blue triangle recurs at one side of the picture, and three pairs of legs repeat at the bottom. Finally, in "Them," Sillman stirs up something different, more like Ensor, as a gang of apparent men and women, at least one of them a giant, treks across a foggy landscape, leaving behind them a forest, or maybe a village. Their purple bodies and grotesque profiles are rendered in a lilting tangle of lines. With a solemn palette, Sillman also finds whimsy in the liberty taken with the figuration. And she enlivens the composition with a bold yellow brushstroke, reaching from the bottom almost to the top of the canvas, as if Barnett Newman visited her studio.

A contemporary worth noting here is Joanne Greenbaum, who also pursues abstract clusters of blocks and irregular forms. Greenbaum is geometric and diagrammatic, while Sillman procedes by vigorous drawing and scrubbing to achieve her paintings. And of course, there's Cecily Brown who similarly treads abstraction and figuration. We can also consider Charlene von Heyl, another abstract painter, simply to compare her relatively programmed process and cleanliness - more German - to Sillman's spontaneous, direct, and invigorating painting. It's like "good old American" abstraction. But does that mean "old-fashioned?" Possibly - although Sillman's cartooning and humor refreshes an aged paradigm. Or maybe oil-on-canvas painting is already so rooted in tradition that this becomes a moot point.

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