The show was a decidedly under-whelming experience, for the noted New Yorker’s first solo outing in London. Sillman is best known here for her inclusion in the Saatchi Gallery’s Abstract America in 2008 where her brand of gestural semi-abstraction was bracketed with various hybrid streams from artists such as Douglas Kolk, Carter, Joanne Greenbaum and Elizabeth Neel. None of whom have since attracted much attention, although Greenbaum is represented by Greengrassi. What distinguished Sillman was a curious mixture of whimsy and bravura in facture and imagery. The work evoked a revered line in New York painting, from Guston to de Kooning and Motherwell, while also allowing geometric volumes in insistent, often vivid outline, delicate, hard-edged motifs, cursory horizon lines and cartoon-like limbs, sometimes stick figures. The work was at once reassuringly traditional, yet arch, anarchic. And Sillman was hardly a Saatchi discovery; from completing her M.A. at Bard College in 1995, she has been the recipient of a string of prestigious fellowships leading to representation at Brent Sikkema in New York in 2000 (later Sikkema Jenkins & Co) with acquisitions to MoMA, The Whitney, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as the Tate Modern. Saatchi’s contribution was really to place her within a context of American painters in the mid-noughties re-examining the middle ground between figuration and abstraction. That territory has only spread or splintered since then.
To judge from the current show, Either Or And, the artist’s interests have tilted somewhat toward the abstract and the results are for the most part respectable but dull. It was perhaps inevitable that the dissonance and dithering would be refined at some point, streamlined with practice. Unfortunately, it has also drained them of their irreverence and wit. The standout was Duel from 2011 (also exhibited at Capitain Petzel in Berlin that year) where the canvas is divided vertically into opposing sides, each assigned a claw glove and background filled with phantom figures, worked through thin layers, hinting at a history of manoeuvres, concealments, dissatisfaction; hinting also at a whole person and picture achieved finally through confrontation, an ardent axis. That said; the work is keyed to a yellow ground, a colour not usually associated with courage. This kind of fun is in short supply though. More recent works in the show are much less dramatic, much more obscure and abstract. Even the artist’s signature discordant colour schemes are toned down, harmonised with a pervasive grey. Works like Untitled (2013) now marshal colour and setting within a distinctly Cubist arrangement and similar works (all works from 2013 are untitled) recall a mid-twentieth century convergence between Surrealism and Synthetic Cubism, resisting biomorphic forms but uneasy with mechanical or geometric substitutes. These works are smaller, simpler, still flaunting a lavish facture, its pentimenti and scrapings, transparencies and mixed brush loadings and in their way quite polished, but ultimately more remote, even academic.
Yet it would be unwise to conclude too much from this show, firstly, because other recent efforts suggest more promising avenues and secondly, it may be that the selection of works reflects the gallery to some extent. Dane is a curious choice for Sillman, not least because she is listed in the Campoli Presti stable, across town. Whatever the story is there, this show hardly consolidates her standing. By the same token, Sillman is not an easy artist to pin down. Elsewhere she has collaborated with fellow New Yorkers David Humphrey and Elliot Green as TEAM SHaG in a kind of Late Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpses, each modifying the other’s paintings, combining at times, stressing metamorphosis, comic strip-like illustration and random or unconscious juxtaposition. It may be a similar mischievous spirit that allows her birth date to be variously given as 1955 on the Sikkema Jenkins site, 1956 on her Wikipedia page and 1966 on the Saatchi site and in the book Abstract America, as well as on Artnet. Yet since all seem to agree she attended New York University in 1973, and no one remarks upon her unlikely attendance there as a seven-year old, the fifties dates look the more likely. There is similar confusion over whether she was born in Chicago or Ann Arbor.
Another development has been her experiments with digital graphics, shown last year in Paris and her interest in animation. The sense there may be that the artist looks for a more public, more open voice. Certainly the relation to text or narrative grants figures a different, more direct function than the intensely private abstraction obtained in paintings. Actually text has been a surprising omission from her painting, so far. Since this is a review for abstract critical, consideration of the formal issues is obviously a priority and a brief survey of earlier work now serves this end. But as is my wont, formal issues are best encountered while acknowledging content. Sillman renders bodily relations, often expressly sexual relations, in strict, linear terms, in part appealing to prosaic diagram, in part avoiding more charged or painterly treatment. It is a traditional duality, here given stark emphasis. Limbs, accordingly, acquire a spindly, feeble quality, even in earlier works such as Birdwatcher (2004). Later works such as Bed (2006) or Ich Auch (2009) then grant pose or gesture, a tenuous yet tenacious grasp, an awkward or convoluted relation to others. There is also the suggestion that such grasp is effectively the only agency for others; that the body is just sexual, even when sexual not strictly convenient. Here diagram is stretched into metaphor, acquires a more dreamlike or whimsical tone. Dogged outline is expressively played off against lush or generous fill or modelling to similar effect. Sillman favours colour over tone, but is rarely happy with a flat or single colour, or indeed respecting any single set of outlines for long; rather, reworks them anxiously for some nuance or modulation, as often colours line for greater coordination. The result is an amusingly fractious sense of improvisation, a wryly measured exuberance against an adamant insecurity.
As the diagrams become less literal, more poetic, figures are sometimes reduced to just an erratic scaffolding, a volumetric framework, as in Big Girl (2006), Psychology Today (2007) and Purple Thing (2007). We then have not so much pose or limbs as the person as box or cage, to be grasped only through the contortions of geometry, the frames or windows available. And such constructions are clearly the result of considerable struggle, of reworking and retreat, to the point where volume, plane or line all but dissolve. The picture is then merely the record of a protracted, comprehensive engagement. This is of course, classic Abstract Expressionist territory, with its accent on action and assertion of just this private conviction as object enough. Abstraction on these terms stakes out an otherwise unattainable territory, neither icon nor notation, not formula nor routine – rejecting all but the ultimate in singularity, individuality. Sillman is not really up for the full existential bit though. At most, her work allows glimpses of this private hell when framed by more familiar and figurative elements, as in Blue Diagram (2009). Here an arm grips some support or aid, the motif repeated on either side of the picture while a mesh of blue lines makes furious connections between them, not so much plotting a space, although there are perspective cues, but rather as emotional situation, announcing less literal and visible factors. Line, in other words, now steers clear of volume; seeks more stable grounds, makes room for intangibles. In Nut (2011) we have limbs again, now no more than folded around a bodily presence, a suitably lean and elusive arrangement. And this pretty much brings us up to date, as the work draws more inward, more intimate, only to lose momentum or impact.
It is unlikely her work will relinquish the figure entirely; unlikely she will be satisfied for long with a supposedly self-referential set of planes or colours. No one can really go there anymore either. And when they do, there is almost nothing to see. Abstraction today is relative and compromised and artists persist with it mainly because realism fares no better. It too has endless versions rife with vested interests we juggle precariously. We abstract some to simplify matters, adopt more concrete terms where it helps, but there is no one kind of picture for everything, no one kind of thing for all pictures. It is an uncertain and challenging world, to be sure. But clearly, artists like Sillman are at home there.
Amy Sillman: Either Or And is at the Thomas Dane Gallery until the 9th of October.