New York

Amy Sillman

The center of Amy Sillman’s Hindu High School (all works 1996), which crowds the rest of the painting’s images to its sides, is a large orb of yellow—a pool of yellow to dive into, a yellow sun to bake under, or perhaps, given the title’s Hindu reference, some kind of tantric meditational cosmic something-or-other to locate one in spiritual space. Thinly lettered words fanning in from the four corners nourish that notion: “Birth,” “Death,” “Conception,” “Forgetting.” Having declared with this summary that her art will touch the bases of human and of creative life, Sillman smartly leavens ambition with whimsy. A whirlpool-like whorl at bottom right gets a pair of dots that make it into a kind of smiley or Spiderman face without a mouth; a balancing roundness at bottom left has a little curl on top—Tintin, or perhaps the doodles on a teenager’s homework. High school, after all, has to come in somewhere.

With their arabesques and curlicues, overlaps and pentimenti, these paintings, all in oil and gouache on wood, evince a free-associative imagination fluent in Surrealism and also in Tex Avery, say, or Disney. Generously flowing lines marry sinuous curves to wandering squiggles to testicular or ovular bags and bulges and vaginal recessions. The occasional figures are usually embellished enough to seem at home in this fluid terrain: perhaps the hips will be overtaken by a red blob resembling a ’50s kidney-shaped table, or one side of the body will be all ear. The polymorphousness, the organicism, the feeling of everything intermingling or being looped in with everything else, have an erotic charge to them, as does the palette dominated by yellows and punctuated by reds, oranges, and pinks. Expulsion of Flower & Tree, a transformation of Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise, renders Eve herself as a color bar of the yellow-to-red scale, topped by an efflorescence of red petals.

If “Flower & Tree” equals Eve and Adam, Sillman has switched the usual order of the First Couple’s names. So add a feminine priority in with the usual art history; put Lynda Barry beside a contemporary like Carroll Dunham. This is clearest in Miss New York, five even rows of women’s faces drawn cartoonlike on a red ground below this body of work’s only firm rectangle, a dull green monochrome, though marked by pentimenti. The most ordered of the paintings shown, Miss New York might be an attempt simply to list some of a city’s female community, to assert them as a class, or as a bunch of friends. A pictorially heavy block bears down from the painting’s top.

View from Lake Michigan is as close as Sillman comes to landscape. A tiny figure stands on the lake shore, or perhaps in the water. There is a distant white boat, and in the sky the head and shoulders of a man facing away, and something else—a knotted swirl of red forms in the clouds that suggests an amazing explosion of presences, genielike guardian and demon spirits, maybe, or a violently colored embodiment of the lakeside figure’s emotions and desires. On one level recalling various renderings of the “Temptation of Saint Anthony” theme (I’m thinking particularly of James Ensor’s version of 1887), View from Lake Michigan is also a funky and touching description of being a modern girl.

David Frankel