New York

Amy Sillman

The first thing you noticed on entering Amy Sillman’s show of new paintings was The Umbrian Line, 1999–2000, a group of twenty bright gouaches on paper. Mostly small and arranged in a slightly uneven row, they contain elements of Italian landscapes and architecture and conjure a trecento fresco cycle like those seen in the churches of Umbria, where Sillman completed the series. Umbria doesn’t exactly fit into the romantic category of the sublime-but-neglected place, but it’s still a little hard to get there, and patience is required to uncover the region’s rewards—not an inaccurate metaphor for looking at Sillman’s work. Her quirky iconography combines elements from Italian painting and Indian miniatures with cartoonishly rendered figures reminiscent of Tex Avery–style animation, all gorgeous yellow, pinks, and blue-greens interwoven with passages of decorative geometry.

Sillman’s method, though it might seem haphazard at first, offers as much to decipher as the imagery. The artist repeatedly works over her surfaces, juxtaposing opacity and translucence by applying filmy clouds of gesso over the brightest blues or affixing collaged bits of paper, often fragments of drawings. Her brushwork is playful and often dazzling. In Of a Reversible Nature, 2000 (which could be subtitled “Under the Sea”), wavy organic forms in a watery blue-green field surround what might be the birth of an ambiguously gendered Venus figure. And the representational elements of King Pink, 2000, run along all four edges of the canvas, allowing for the possibility that the painting could have been hung upside down or sideways.

Sillman tempers her various heady themes—literature, the psyche, salvation, religion—by dipping into the well of personal mythology and imagination. Language plays an important role in this approach. Hypertrophy, 2000, contains evocative fragments from the Polish author Bruno Schultz: “In the yellow mourning . . . suburban bluebells stood in . . . tragedy.” Sillman might reduce a sentence by a favorite author to single capital letters held in small, thick dabs of pigment. In one such work, For Robert Walser, 2000, a Symbolist-inspired yellow sunburst radiates from the center of a landscape pieced together from sheets of paper loosely mounted on canvas that has been cut to match the irregular shape of the collage.

Many artists have uncovered a muse in the eccentric Walser (1878–1956), and it’s not hard to see that Sillman would be drawn to his spontaneous wilderness wanderings and the heartbreak of his madness. Her work has examined the awkward emotions and painful moments that we all experience. Her sensibility of poignant self-deprecation was most evident in an earlier painting, Good Grief, 1998, in which such laments as “story of my life,” “pissing in the wind,” and “losers lounge” appear. In her new work the language is more elegiac, and so is the psychology. In Skirmishes of an Untimely Nature, 2000, graphically rendered animals populate one side of the composition, which is divided by what look like swooping telephone lines. A small group of human figures escapes the earthly realm through an opening to the other side, but it’s unclear what that destination is: Has the fate of hell been averted? Is this a metaphoric evolution from human to animal consciousness, and, further, to the burdens of guilt, remorse, and penitence? The content is subtle and permeable—that it could be Christian, Hindu, or Freudian is probably moot. Sillman deftly fuses the recognizable and the nonrepresentational, but what she does might aptly be described as approximative: She approximates narratives, moods, locations, figures, and language. This mutable quality is perhaps her work’s greatest strength.

Meghan Dailey