Amy Sillman, "Transformer (or, how many lightbulbs does it take to change a painting?)"

Amy Sillman argues for the primacy of painting in the 21st century.

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A while ago, I began a review of Gerhard Richter with a line that brought me all kinds of grief on Facebook and various art blogs. I wrote, “It’s a widely held belief in the art world that painting is dead,” which led commenters to conclude (a) that I hated the medium, and (b) that I was out of it, obviously, because no one had felt that way about painting “since the Nixon administration.” Ha.

In hindsight, I probably overstated the case. It would be fairer to describe painting-is-dead as a persistent if vestigial meme, vastly diminished from its Conceptual Art heyday, when Tricky Dick was compiling enemies lists and planning break-ins, but still a notion to be reckoned with.

Not that anyone had ever stopped painting in the first place, of course, but let’s face it: Beyond what transpired in the ’60s and ’70s, some important milestones in 20th-century art stem from similar repudiations of the craft—notably Marcel Duchamp’s dismissal of painting as being merely “retinal,” and Walter Benjamin’s association of it with reactionary politics. I’d submit that a lot of curators, dealers and collectors today must agree with such characterizations on a certain level; otherwise, why would so many biennials and art fairs be stuffed with video, installation and found/fabricated objects?

So if painting-is-dead isn’t the 800-pound gorilla it used to be, it remains, arguably, a more elusive Yeti loping among the art-world’s high-cultural Himalayas. But don’t take my word for it; just check out Amy Sillman’s latest exhibition, which deals with this issue head-on.

“Much of the painting I love occurs after 'painting is dead,’ ” writes Sillman in the self-published zine that serves as the show’s catalog-talisman, and if you’re talking about Sillman’s own oeuvre, I couldn’t agree more. Her latest offering is a tour de force if ever there was one. The oils and works on paper here channel Guston, Picasso and Matisse, and Sillman works them all to the very edges with an abandon that’s both delirious and disciplined. The results display the artist’s usual wit—at once mordant, self-effacing and ditzy—but no one should underestimate her ambition. Sillman clearly means to stake a claim for painting’s primacy in the 21st century by arguing that its tactility is precisely what makes it the most philosophical of mediums. And she succeeds, primarily by not taking a serious subject all that seriously.

Although many of the pieces read as abstract, they are in fact compilations of image fragments that have been distended, elongated, overlapped and schematized in a manner that also recalls late Picabia or early David Salle. Sillman describes these shapes in furiously stroked outlines, then sets them adrift over bravura passages of brushwork and color. It takes a while—and a glance at the titles on the checklist—to get a sense of what you’re looking at, or more to point, what you think you’re looking at. Drawer—rendered in blue, green, lavender and yellowish lines atop a scumbled off-white background—suggests a view glancing down on a desk, which crowds the right half of the composition. On the left, a squiggly, fetusy figure opens the eponymous object, its hand and arm grotesquely shriveled. What it’s searching for is impossible to tell, though the desktopis x-rayed to reveal another blobby character curled inside.

Sillman offers a key to the show inthe form of the aforementioned pamphlet, which contains a CD of audio pieces and a poster that enumerates “Some Problems in Philosophy.” The latter features two columns marked GREAT AND NOT SO GREAT, dividing the pros and cons of the great thinkers of Western civ, starting with Descartes and ending with Derrida. (Kierkegaard, for example, is dispatched with DOUBT and NERVOUS WRECK.) In rueful postscript, Sillman lumps together female philosophers under the heading WOMEN—WHO CARES WHAT THEY THINK?

Sillman, however, seems less interested in scoring feminism points than in making an argument for feeling, in both senses of the word, as a road to understanding. A cartoon in the booklet, titled Train of Thought, notes that while there is a ready symbol for having an idea—a lightbulb over the head—there is no such icon for emotions, though she proposes that the image of a hand might serve as one. And indeed, the idea of touch related to painting as a probing, subliminally sexualized activity is a recurring one in this show, along with the concept of light—if the form of flashlights, fluorescents and other such fixtures—as a stand-in for enlightenment. In terms of discovering oneself as an artist, Sillman seems to indicate, the two cannot really be divorced, despite what Conceptualism had to say on the subject. Painting is dead, long live painting.

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