The Amy Sillman feel-good club

The picture on the front page of yesterday's NY Times had, of all things, high-school football. It appears there's a tiny town in northern Kansas that has a really good team. According to the Times, their hard work and straight living have paid off in winning season after season. What? No suicide bombings? No wildfires?
The football story was continued on page C12, deep inside the business section, and that's the key: today's top story was "Fed Chief Warns of Worse Times in the Economy." The Times has some great photographers, but even they couldn't come up with an exciting picture for that. The economy's tanking, and they ran a feel-good football story to cheer us up. Amy Sillman's show is like that: an inspiring tale of one woman surmounting, ignoring, or circumventing the enormous heap of cynical anti-painting crapola to make good old-fashioned paintings.

Trawler, 2004


The hell of it is, it works. It worked on me! I went to Blaffer Gallery expecting to dislike Amy Sillman's paintings, put off by their universal popularity, suspiciously nostalgic style, and coy half-revealed storytelling. I'd seen three of them a couple years ago in "Landscape Confection" at the CAM, and thought them the embodiment of what New York wanted a painting to be. "Each painting tells a jumbled story like an un-captioned newspaper photograph in the painterly calligraphy New York has been hungry to re-legitimize and sell ever since the glory days of 1950’s and 60’s" is what I said then. It still fits now, but apparently it's not only New York: everybody wants to re-legitimize this kind of painting, and that makes Amy Sillman everybody's art hero.
But they're not the same as historical paintings. Just last weekend I visited the Blanton Museum in Austin, leaving me a fresh memory of what second-rate New York School abstraction really looks like, and any of Sillman's paintings would stand out in that company like a candle in a cave.
Nevertheless, they're reassuring paintings, reaffirming the vitality of the most traditional kind of brushed, authentic easel painting. Like Houston painters Michael Kennaugh and David Aylsworth, Sillman pursues the straight-ahead path of traditional painting with impervious assurance. Sillman is painting for the home team.
It's abstraction that makes itself easy to interpret; the figurative elements provide readymade clues that prompt speculation about the less obviously representational parts of each work. In operation, Sillman's paintings are like Chagall, merging paint with emotional reality in a dreamlike psychological space, where colors and gestures equate with emotions and events.

Elephant in the Room, 2006


Not that they're happy-happy. In Elephant in the Room, 2006, a silly green tentacle explores a glowing orange space; it's a problem, but not a disaster. Sillman's busy paintings portray a civilized sort of anxiety that everyone can appreciate without being overwhelmed.
That's where I stopped. I could wait another week or two to polish off some completed thoughts, but I'm going to post it as-is. This is a blog! What do you want, depth?

also by Bill Davenport

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2 responses to “The Amy Sillman feel-good club”

  1. and lovth when you providth! wouldn’t have minded thum linth (eg http://www.hfac.uh.edu/blaffer/exhibitions/current_exhibition/sillman.html and http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/artists/amy_sillman.htm), but thankth anywayth!

  2. Don’t pussyfoot. Everybody knows and it’s OK. I like paintings, too. Done by painters, with or without Muppet costumes. It’s OK.

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