New York

Susan Silas


This show of Susan Silas’ work presents us with something rare: art that is funny. Yet the work is also thoughtful, and the questions it provokes remain in mind long after the laughter fades. The exhibition begins with a piece (also illustrated on the postcard/invitation) that confronts through self-mockery: “Miss Silas,” the 55-by-58-inch oil on linen reads, “this is your lucky day.” Though this stylized self-deprecation is tinged with solipsism, perhaps it also bespeaks a larger awareness; this is clearly “art about art,” but it’s not the self-conscious nature of the rumination that surprises one so much as the idea that the artist addresses the topic in a painterly work. In doing so, Silas walks a thin line between being laughed with and laughed at, between grudging complicity and outright protest. Clearly Silas has made her choice; she’s in the gallery, but she’s pointing out her predicament, too. The viewer gets to decide if this is really a courageous stance or merely an idiosyncratic and self-lacerating one. In any case it points to a question that runs through the show: namely, whether work can be brainy and critical and still be more than it says.

Like a good joke, Silas’ work cuts to the heart of an issue without necessarily explaining it didactically, and the results are sometimes disquieting and frequently farfetched. In this way, walking through this show is like listening to a rambling, semicoherent tirade on any number of subjects, including disease, sexism, television, the Holocaust, and critics who think they know everything. Many of the works are so specifically referential to Anselm Kiefer, and to The Story of O that they presuppose an awareness that may not exist, and so seem obscure. But then, unlike a critic, Silas doesn’t need to explain herself, and what her work lacks in coherence it makes up for in sheer animus, not to mention poetic allusion. For eventually a certain subtlety does emerge—not in the thought, but through the materials with which the artist substantiates it, not in the discourse but in the detail.

A bar of bittersweet chocolate encased in a handsome vitrine bears the jacket copy of The Story of O. What does one make of this? Much, in G. Roger Denson’s case (he penned the catalogue essay). But the power of the work depends less on explicit discursive content than on the jolt one gets from the object itself––less in being told that Silas chose bittersweet chocolate to suggest that “life is a bitter pill” (Denson) than in observing the surprising incongruity of chocolate, a glass vitrine, and advertising copy for an erotic novel.

Take for example the work contagion, 1990. The word, painted on the canvas, has been sealed under layers of Saran Wrap. The work haunts despite its humor; there’s a transcendent allusiveness to both the materials and the presentation of the word––pallidly done, but somehow more frightening for this pallor.

In the end, these works are anything but mute; Silas’ voice—smart, ornery, droll—comes through loud and clear. If the didacticism of her show can be wearing, it is also intelligent, provocative, and ingeniously realized.

Justin Spring