New York

Amy Sillman

Brent Sikkema

Amy Sillman’s reputation has grown with each new show. Though she simmered in obscurity for (by her reckoning) at least ten years, this was also time to experiment and explore, to adopt and hone a range of techniques. That decade keeps paying off: Her latest exhibition, “I am curious (yellow),” featured apparently tossed-together works of real substance and panache. She’s prolific, too: “I am curious” included six large-scale paintings, a wall full of gouaches, and Letters from Texas, 2003, a chain of sixteen panels forming a loose narrative along two walls.

Sillman’s flavors are her colors: Tasty, unstoppably cheery buttercreams, citrus yellows, saffron oranges, cotton-candy pinks, and mint-ice-cream greens are backed by blues and whites that themselves glow with hues from beneath. Should one swoon over this palette or salivate? Either way, its gastronomic-domestic associations assure a powerful response.

While Sillman’s work bears the influence of historic movements from the quattrocento to the New York School, it’s also linked to younger contemporaries like Chris Johansen and Barry McGee, fellow doodlers and meanderers. She distinguishes herself from all of them, however, with an idiosyncratic formal-pictorial approach. In Nimby, 2002, for example, a flotilla of frostinglike daubs (recalling Philip Guston) hovers over a landslide of wavering lines (shades of Brice Marden). But the painting’s surface overall (lustrous in some places, dryly frescolike in others), not to mention the balloon head making oracular pronouncements atop a pyramid, could only have issued from Sillman’s brush.

Me & Ugly Mountain, 2003, is probably the most easily read painting here. A lone figure heads across a snowy landscape, pulling behind her a huge heap of, well, abstractions, as well as some vague figural elements. It’s an “ugly mountain” of worldly burdens and source material—psychological, experiential, and art historical—and it grows denser and curvier toward its lower strata, as with the weight of compression, or as if to evoke the subconscious.

Sillman has always had a penchant for surreal dream- and bodyscapes; but here, large new landscapes signal a subtle shift from personal psychology to, perhaps, a more philosophical or “public” point of view. Some recall medieval cosmological illuminations, with views of the stars or underground worlds rendered in cross section. In Unearth, 2003, an antenna descends from a celestial pink mass that’s part cloud, part boat, as if to transmit information to the land below. There, barely discernible figures trudge toward a mountain; above, a small brownish slice of sky remains untouched by the ecstatically colorful rays of the sun. Hamlet, 2002, offers a cutaway of hillside, mountain, and seascape; bodily forms embedded amid a few geological strata evaporate into ivory nothingness deep below the earth’s surface. Tiny pine trees and a house wash out to sea, where a (slightly menacing) head has erupted, geyserlike, to say HELLO; floating elsewhere are two GOODBYEs. Sillman’s low-key manner and the fact that she’s as funny as she is melancholy countermand the viewer’s vague sense that the big issues (life cycles, human connections to earth and cosmos) are being addressed. Eschewing the explicitly personal or political, her paintings are records of a thought process, communicated with a deliberate clumsiness. They’re journeys whose sense of wonder stems from the possibility that the artist has no destination in mind.

Julie Caniglia