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The Confusion and Delight of the Unknown

An Emotional Response to the Work of Amy Sillman

Sillman, Amy (2003) Me & Ugly Mountain, oil painting (John Berens/ICA)


My introduction to Amy Sillman happened altogether too recently. Despite the fact that her and her work are quite new to me, I feel as if her ideas and energy have been subtly influencing me for years. Attempting to write about Sillman presents a number of challenges; the first of which is what to focus on. During last summer I ‘met’ Sillman by reading her interview with Gregg Bordowitz, our director, and I was transported by her questions and thinking.


My admiration had already inflated to obscene proportions by the time I examined her paintings and suddenly I found myself encountering her everywhere I looked. I sat with her paintings, stumbled upon additional examples of her writing, and finally caved and purchased Faux Pas.


I am still utterly mystified by her work and, consequently, have decided to partake in the most pleasant of writing exercises - observation and acknowledgement. There are three paintings in particular that I want to focus in on: Cliff 1, NIMBY, and PURPLE THING. Each offers a unique persona and I believe that they relate and diverge from one another in delightful ways.


Sillman, Amy (2005) Cliff 1, oil on canvas, 72 x 59.8 in.

Sillman, Amy (2006) PURPLE THING, oil on canvas, 80 x 72 in.

Sillman, Amy (2002) NIMBY, oil on canvas, 68 x 55 in.


Let me begin by pointing out that I am particularly biased in this assessment since her work seems to me to be a highly developed and evolved manifestation of the qualities that I attempt to capture within my own paintings. Perhaps, however, this bias will empower my skills of perception and analysis.


In all three paintings I find myself fixating on the organic and fluid lines of paint that drape across and connect each form. These delicate connections unite the compositions while allowing various colors to function independently in relation to the viewer. These compositional arteries make me think me of yarn that has been loosely yet strategically strung throughout a space for the purposes of guiding the eye.


While the lines act as highways, the colors function as waypoints - unique destinations for exploration and enjoyment. Each color invites a certain emotional interaction or investment. By muting the background and crafting a textured foundation, Sillman clarifies the colors as independent agents instead of environments. The balance of complex versus empty spaces hints at motion within the paintings.


As I sit with these three works, I read each color as fulfilling a particular need within the space. The orange jumps to the foreground as if levitating off the surface of the canvas. The greens are qualifiers of form, bursting forward with vibrant energy when brighter and sinking behind the canvas surface when muted. Purple grounds us with its serene presence, but as it morphs towards magenta it begins to direct our gaze from point to point.


Each color family speaks to the sculptural nature of Sillman’s paintings. Whether as tapestry or as articulated space, there is a weaving of form as the laws of gravity stretch and ground these dimensional shapes. Cliff 1 sinks forward as the colors expand towards the lower edge of the canvas. PURPLE THING extends simultaneously outward and inward, like an architectural experiment. Meanwhile, NIMBY tumbles down and out with dramatic flare.


As viewers and artists I think we tend to prefer that the primary shapes constrict themselves within the dimensions of the canvas. But abstract painting asks to go beyond, as if to create its own realities beyond the edges of the canvas. To ask it to stay within seems almost unnatural. Sillman’s compositions extend beyond the canvas edges, unafraid of boundaries or endings. I find this to be intensely inspiring.


One final musing that I must address is Sillman’s lack of apprehension with the interpretation of her work. There are times when I wish viewers would sit with my work as I do, acknowledging its unique existence as an extension of my brain. When people would look at my work and try to find familiar or identifiable forms, I assumed that I was failing at something.


In a Q&A session with Michelle Kuo regarding the show The Shape of Shape, Sillman made a statement that gave me immense joy and relief. She said regarding abstraction, “It’s probably about confusion and pleasure and then resolution and then more confusion. […] The world is partly the process of saying, “this looks like that; let’s make distinctions and should we call it something or should we not?” […] I feel that abstraction is urgent because of that kind of […] play, that form, that forces you to engage.”


Simply put, we look for identifiers in abstract painting the same way that we look for recognizable qualities in all the world. This tendency is integral to our very nature. Part of the magic and mystery of abstraction is that it engages an essential aspect of our brains that we sometimes forget is there. We take this process for granted when we become entirely familiar with our surroundings. Abstraction’s “urgency” arises from our sense of curiosity and simultaneous fear and excitement about the unknown.


Ultimately, Sillman displays a confidence through her work that I long for. She is not afraid of connotations or insinuations, as exhibited through the naming of her work and through the inclusion of various identifiers. She does not pursue ultimate mystery or expect supernatural understanding. Instead, she offers the canvas to her viewer as a space where they may exist as they are, with the desire to make sense out of the confusion of the unknown.

All images are linked to their original sources and were accessed on 15 March 2021.

For more information about Amy Sillman and her recent work, please visit her website.

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