Human and Machine, Nature and Labor, The Erotic Side of Amy Sillman at Sikkema Jenkins
Sikkema Jenkins is a bold, open gallery. Its expansive white walls and high ceiling challenge artists. A flat work could be lost in the space, an abstract painting could fade into the background, or a sculpture could seem like mere decoration. But the pristine openness also affords the opportunity for a work to feel grand, brash, and important. Thus it is a testament to Amy Sillman that even her small drawings entice one in for a closer look.
While Sillman’s art is broadly described as abstract, all of her paintings deal with daily objects, distinct forms, and motion. If you think of Amy Sillman as a political artist, consider this her erotic show. This is not to say that sex is not political, but from the moment one walks into the gallery their eyes will be drawn to the visceral shapes in the abstractions of everyday shapes and actions.
In the first room, 33 paintings hang on one wall in three rows of 11. Images are repeated in the series, which in one painting appears to be a pulley system, and in another looks more like two humans struggling. Brought together in this way, neither is necessarily one more than the other, and with various shadings and background colors, every action in between is evoked, from welding to having sex. Yet in blending this distinction between the human and the machine, Sillman does not seem to criticize or degrade, but simply evoke some passion, some uneasiness, and some ideas.
These emotions and ideas are explored on a larger scale in the next room, in three large painting. The first, aptly titled Walt Whitman, could be a human form, with a small dome representing the head atop two sloping lines that define the body, but shading and blurred lines create crosses and haloes, evoking the image of a cathedral, specifically stressing the abstraction of the human form inherent in the religious, and broadly, as a building, the labor required in all creation, from the human, to the religious, to the painting itself.
Schmetterling, the title of the second painting, seems self conscious of the themes developing in the show. It is the German word for butterfly, and also the code name for the German land-to-air missile project developed during WW2, pointing out the tedious labor involved in the further, and the natural element involved in the latter, both of which are often overlooked in the relative idealization and demonization of each. In the painting there appears to be both man and machines toiling away at a project – both the human and mechanical lines from the first room working in unison in one painting, on one blurry point where all the lines intersect, which could be interpreted as a point of chaos or a promethean explosion. As the title implies, the toil of this laborer is involved in both.
The third painting is my favorite in the room. Simply titled Nose, it involves more elements than Whitman or Schmetterling. The edge of the painting is compartmentalized into different colors with different techniques of shading and boldness of lines. When they converge in the center they create obvious forms. Two pink lines enter from the right and coil into a complex nasal passageway in the center, a dark blue frames the brow, and a more solvent green drips down the back edge. But the visceral image is never so clear-cut with Sillman. As the surroundings form the object, other forms become apparent, too, and seem to evolve on their own. A fallic slope emerges from the bulb of the nose, next to which rest two perfectly round…nostrils. Not only is toil involved in the work of nature and the work of art, but unexpected consequences emerge that cannot be contained, that are a part of the creation.
In the third room, two paintings are even more layered, with hidden backgrounds covered with transparent yet bright, electric colors. One, titled Drawer, contains only one small angular shape that could be interpreted as a drawer in the center of the painting. Around it, a flurry of activity unfolds. The spacing of the painting is boldly cut in half by the lines of a figure on its knees, a shape Sillman explores in detail and repetition in the title piece of the show. On either side of this, two circles contain curves and angles that could be creating the drawer, destroying it, or simply opening it and slamming it shut.
The title piece, Transformer (or how many light bulbs does it take to change a painting), is a series of 63 painting stretching across three walls in a single row. Even smaller in scale than the 33 paintings in the first room, this series is also more enticing, both for its detail and its eroticism. A simple sketch of a light bulb quickly unfolds into a human playing with that lightbulb and then a human playing with itself and others, with lightbulbs occasionally in the background and occasionally taking the forefront in these activities. Sillman explores a full spectrum of concepts about where ideas come from and how inspiration can be represented in a comical way inspired by that cartoonish lightbulb shining above a head.
In the back room of the gallery, two colors meet from opposite sides of a canvas in what is clearly two human forms. The piece is titled Lightbulb, carrying the ostensible theme of the exhibit, but the deeper themes of human and machine, nature and labor, are obvious. A hand appears to be reaching between the legs of another figure, in Sillman’s favorite pose of the person on its knees, where the fingers grip a small orb, a lightbulb, if you will. The erased backgrounds of hidden lines abound, and both forms are translucent on the edges of the painting, but as they reach toward each other, they grow more sporadic but bolder, hiding the hidden backgrounds, until they touch and create a new, third color in the center of the painting – a color that is completely solid, that blocks out all the erased backgrounds. This new color feels pristine, untouched, almost virgin, like a fresh experience, but the way the hidden backgrounds curve into it we are made aware that it is created, incorporating all that is around and behind it.
This nuanced development of such human themes, from an artist who has given us political zines and cultural critiques, does not disappoint, in fact it fills one of the most challenging spaces in Chelsea with art worth pondering long after it is removed.