Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Through May 15, 2010
Late Philip Guston is a clear influence here, particularly in Sillman's mesmerizing suite of 33 drawings, in which legs sprout arms and bodies twist into impossible shapes. Like Guston toward the end of his career, when he became a lapsed Abstract Expressionist, the artist seems to be seeking a path for painting, which today is still riddled with stylistic dogma and Balkanization. That’s hardly a new goal, but she brings a rare insouciance to the task, and seems to have playfully created her best work in years.
Is that a skeletal hand placing an olive into a mysterious blue void in Shade, 2010, or just a smattering of oranges and blues, finished with a green dot? In another painting, are those innocent color masses or are we witnessing a rather explicit erotic consummation? One never quite knows what’s happening in Sillman’s painting. In some of her earlier works, this desire to confound looked over-thought. Here, though, she juices every complex painting with spontaneous life, setting thick and thin patches of oil side by side, which allows cast-off fragments to pop through in the sparer sections.
In another set of drawings, which line the walls of one gallery, she offers another twist: narrative. A light bulb morphs miraculously into a flashlight in the first two scenes. Then the lights go out, the flashlight goes on, and a story begins. Elsewhere, viewers will be hard-pressed to tease any form out of her abstraction. Walt Whitman, 2010, shares the color and shape of Francis Bacon’s pope portrait — and is that a cross up top? — but her throne is empty. Or, again, am I just projecting my own readings in her fields of color? Understanding the "art of one’s own time," art historian Meyer Shapiro once wrote, “is so unusual as to constitute an act of genius.” I can’t pretend I know what's happening here.
Off to one corner of the main gallery, Sillman is selling the third edition of her zine, The O-G. (Drop a dollar in a metal can to take one home.) Inside the pamphlet she offers a history of the light bulb — as object, metaphor, and symbol — and includes a small, fold-out poster titled “Some Problems in Philosophy,” a helpful chart that notes the merits and failings of the West’s great philosophers. In the pro bracket, Adorno is tagged for “critical theory — & a music lover!”; the con column reads: “so negative — a downer — & he really missed the boat on jazz!” Sartre also earns plaudits for “existentialism — radical freedom” and scorn for being “conceited + disdainful — he hates us!” Which is something that could never be said of Sillman, whose generously bizarre art suggests an artist who deeply loves her spun-around viewers.