New York

Amy Sillman

In her recent exhibition of ten new paintings, Amy Sillman demonstrated that she continues to mine the edges of abstraction, meshing patches of color with bursts of chaotic line and weblike compositional scaffolding. Sillman balances dense passages with barely worked fields washed in pale color and often traversed by fragmented horizon lines that convey a sense of open space. Her paint handling—which may appear ferocious or lyrical, careful or slapdash—is invariably deft. She borrows painterly conventions associated with an experimental visual language that can be traced back to Paul Klee and the German Expressionists, and employs a free-form, childlike style of drawing that communicates spontaneity, immediacy, and a direct link to the unconscious.

Animating the mix are stick figures, or rather, parts thereof—an arm here, a couple of legs and feet there. In A Bird in the Hand (all works 2006), an absurdly extended green arm swoops across a faceted curtain of violet shadowed with khaki and olive, cupping a bird in its crudely rendered hand. It’s a sweet moment suggestive of playfulness and hope pushed to the extreme (and reminiscent of a similar gesture in Picasso’s Guernica, 1937). The longer one looks at the painting, the more birds materialize from dark skeins of brushwork.

The cartoonlike bodies that populate Sillman’s paintings emerge along compositional fault lines, breaking out of rough edges or disappearing into thickets of brushstrokes. In Them, superimposed figures dominate the canvas—two looming females with pendulous breasts and clownish faces are compressed together with a smaller masculine figure covered in phallic protuberances. It’s the most gendered of all the psychodramas that Sillman weaves into her pictures. The narrative is only a fragment but it speaks volumes about the potential of her art to flash in and out of social space and to leaven “pure paint” with fragments of content. Her much remarked upon sense of color doesn’t function in a formal vacuum; it seems expressly intended to establish mood.

Nevertheless, while Sillman’s paintings may point in the direction of social dynamics, the representational dimensions of the work never trump what’s happening on her surfaces. The paintings in this show are not only formally engaging, but hold our attention long after we’ve scanned them head-to-toe. There is a sense of risk that echoes in each gesture, and a sense, too, that this work has gained strength from having weathered the many little deaths painting has suffered over the past few decades, whether at the hands of irony, entropy, cuteness, or too much sincerity. It’s possible that each of these polemic episodes has found its way into Sillman’s art and left its mark. Her paintings are endowed with sophistication and sensitivity and, I think, a little sadness, too.

Jan Avgikos