New York

Amy Sillman

Not so many years ago, while teaching the “theory” class at an MFA program in New York, I was told winkingly by the (it so happens: tenured, male) chair of the department that what I offered the students was all well and good, but that at the end of the day, “you don’t need to read to paint.” Though conferred upon me in this case by a proud, self-declared anti-intellectual, the sentiment is hardly rare. Indeed, for all the attention paid to so-called Conceptual painting and its attendant practices over the (at least) past four decades, a kind of inherent allure remains—for better or worse—around the indubitably material, highly particular properties of paint on canvas. (Too often, painting’s irreducibility is said to drive its market readiness, as though collectors can’t just as easily acquire other artistic products, or as though the medium is somehow wholly aligned with bourgeois taste. These arguments willfully ignore the current context of art, in which painting’s full-frontal, unapologetic status as “art” can, counterintuitively, cultivate resistant tactics.)

In Amy Sillman’s recent exhibition titled “Transformer (or, how many lightbulbs does it take to change a painting?)” at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., the artist—who has long trod the fine, fertile line between representation and abstraction—disallowed (or perhaps disavowed) the separation between idea and execution, presenting an array of works that felt at once resolved and experimentally open-ended. If there has been, over the years, a throughline to Sillman’s practice, it might be her willingness to overturn and virally intermingle ostensibly opposing aesthetic and critical legacies, finding their pleasurably multivalent, if usually deeply repressed, shared terrain. While it’s hard to succinctly encapsulate Sillman’s “style” (since doing so tends to underscore the ways in which visual elements come together rather than the ways in which they are undone), one nonetheless knows a Sillman when one sees one. Here, the artist’s cacophonous, nebulous palette pursued a kind of mineral density, with canvases worked over and over into topographical strata (whereby figural or geometric elements peek out, in the process of emerging or being subsumed, in the vein of Frenhofer’s “Unknown Masterpiece”); elsewhere, charcoal, gouache, and ink drawings bore the marks of a more transparent, rapid touch.

If the title for Sillman’s show approximated that of a well-worn—usually stereotyping—joke (to wit: How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? None! They never change anything!), the show followed a deeply serious trajectory. In an issue of a zine produced for the occasion (titled The O-G), Sillman ruminates on the parallel tracks of modern lighting (the lightbulb was invented in 1879) and “modern” painting. Both, as Sillman shows, have been placed in peril in various ways (with the slated obsolescence of incandescent bulbs on the books for 2012, by which time more energy-efficient, environment-friendly, ugly-light-emitting fluorescent lamps are meant to be fully integrated), yet there is more at stake here than historical coincidence. In fact, for Sillman, the shared vicissitudes of modern painting and artificial light offer a case study for the ways in which we have learned—and will learn—to see (and think) otherwise. If a “transformer” is a dumb mechanism that converts variations of voltage, it can also be that set of ideas that suddenly changes a person’s viewpoint utterly and completely (one thinks of stories of people radicalized by leftist or feminist politics, so often described as the moment “a lightbulb went on”). Sillman’s zine asks its readers to imagine the effect of all-fluorescent light on painting, and, by extension, how we might account for and impact ways of seeing more generally. Indeed, in Untitled, 2010, a suite of sixty-six drawings that unfolded along the walls of a small gallery like a flip book, a lightbulb thinks itself into various manifestations, transforming into human and other forms (including a likeness of Sillman). Elsewhere, there was the sumptuous blue, green, and gray composition Schmetterling, 2010: Titled with the German word for butterfly (though the term also pertains to a moth), the painting features patterning that evokes the insect even while remaining an intangible geometric abstraction. Unfurling sticky wings against the contours of the canvas, the image seems caught in the act of its own transformation, suspended there between cocoon and flight.

Johanna Burton