The latest offering from the under-visited University of North Texas Art Gallery is the tasty painterly language of artist Amy Sillman.
The exhibition features an extended horizontal group of paintings that stretches over 100 feet long and around seven different walls to form a single sort of narrative piece referred to as Letters from Texas. Sillman, whose well-regarded work has been included in numerous exhibitions, including the 2004 Whitney Biennial, currently teaches at Bard College in New York. In 2001, writer Gail Gregg described Sillman’s “quirky fusion of figuration and abstraction, humor and pathos — larded with unblushing references to folk art, Indian miniatures and surrealism.”  Sillman has developed a rich language of expressionist paint application, and her paintings allude to an abstract diary in which the tender passages of ones personal process are replaced by the complex tongue of color and line.
It is Sillman’s handling of paint material that has gained her so much notoriety. The narratives depicted in her work, if decipherable at all, are elusive and necessitate an interpreter or personal guide. This is not unusual in contemporary art; however, Sillman has put together a painterly language that is consistent from piece to piece and seems to reveal, within its code, the secrets to the artist’s most secret fears and delights. The colors are soft, and they transition without great contrast. Subject matter within the work presents itself sparingly, crudely and intuitively, as lines are either painted or scratched out of the ground. The marks are abstract, yet figurative. These paintings, with their pinks and light blues, yellows and warm grays, are soundly emotional works. They lead inward, away from the struggle of intellectual dialog and toward the elegance and spontaneity of gibberish or idle chat; in Sillman’s words, “I have an eye for the beauty of ugliness, awkwardness, isolation.”
In the spring of 2002, Sillman spent two months in Texas and was inspired to create a group of works collectively know as the Letters from Texas. The paintings are consistently 26 inches high and varying widths, usually 40 or 60 inches. The installation at UNT presents the works butted up to one another, forming a long line of paintings around three quarters of the gallery. “Filler” paintings are used to allow the “horizon line” to fit exactly the lengths of the walls; which, due to the shape of the space, creates several short walls and corners. The effect is sort of a long 26-inch high painting that you read like a narrative — page to page (or letter to letter). Although there does not seem to be a “real” story that is revealed, the funny scrawlings and un-intimidating clash of color create little vignettes of interaction that beg to be interpreted as specific events or experiences. The regular palette of light colors, especially green, and the lack of striking contrast within the composition keep these pieces from taking on some of the drama associated with the abstract expressionist vernacular. It is the scale of the installation and the process of engagement that give this work its presence.
In addition to the large horizontal piece are three discrete canvases. The 78-by-66 inch Jumbo from 2002 is among them. This oil and acrylic painting delivers a greater range of formal components to translate than the paintings in Letters from Texas In Jumbo, a large figure draped in a busy robe-of-many-colors is presenting a bouquet of long-stems to a much smaller, fretful character facing the other way and standing on a dark mass with flowers growing out of it. Yea, and that’s not all. The large character either has many heads, or the depiction is suggesting movement — I’m not sure which. The little guy is holding a blue object that extends upward as a blue vertical “stripe” out of the picture; it almost looks like an elephant’s trunk. I could go on, but Sillman’s work is not really about how strange this scene is (or even exactly what the scene is). It is more about how this strange language of primitive marks and benign color become authoritative as both abstract and narrative at the same time.
The University of North Texas Art Gallery is located in the Art building on the Denton campus, and continues to be an outstanding exhibition venue.
1. Gail Gregg, ‘streams of Consciousness: The Art of Amy Sillman.” ARTnews, Vol. 100, No. 4, April 2001. [link to article]
Images courtesy the artist and Brent Sikkema Gallery.
Johnny Robertson is an artist and writer living in Dallas.