Art Chronicles: Amy Sillman

If you’re in North London and looking for something to do of an artistic nature – looking rather than making, though making happens there as well – Camden Arts Centre on the corner of Arkwright and Finchley Roads is a good bet.  Even if whatever’s showing doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the good little café with an adjacent two-tier garden. And, more often than not, the work in display is, at the very least, interesting. Sometimes, a lot more than that, with the bonus of discovering artists whose work you weren’t previously aware of, even if you should have been.

Such was the case when I came along with my daughter, Molly, last year and we were introduced to the work of the 90-year-old Romanian artist, Geta Bratescu – 90 and still working. And so it was this week, when my partner, Sarah, and I went to see Landline, an exhibition by the American artist, Amy Sillman. Enthralled. Delighted. Excited. “Wow!” from one room to another.”Wow!’ Just, I mean, “Wow! Look at that!”.

Back of a Horwse Costume

Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume, 2015-16

The Lie Down

Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume [detail] 2015-16

With the help of a zine [The OG. Fall-Winter 2018-19] put together by Sillman especially for this show [she’s into zines in a big way] and an Arts Centre File Note, edited by Gina Buenfeld & Martin Clark, our responses did become a little more articulate.

Aside from a large and rather beautiful animation based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, showing on video in the central space between the galleries, Sillman’s work here divides into two main categories: paintings, oil and/or acrylic on canvas, and acrylic, ink and silkscreen works on paper. The former, mostly quite large – 190.5 x 167.5 cm, around there – seem more considered and while individual, wear their abstract expressionist legacy with ease. There’s Guston there, clearly – those heavy lines – [Guston in the works on paper, too] – a notion of de Kooning, perhaps – and in one piece, Avec, the greens and rectangular shapes have a hint of Diebenkorn. One of the articles we browsed in the Reading Room suggested Joan Mitchell as an influence, but I didn’t see it myself. [I’d have plumped for Grace Hartigan.] And besides – what does it matter, all this naming? Hints of this person, that person. [It’s the curse of once having done a History of Art course at Birkbeck.] Sillman is who she is.

What the Axe Knows 1

Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows, 2018

What the Axe Knows 2

Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows [detail) 2018

The paintings are striking – and the hang gives them room to be so – striking in their immediate overall impression, and then again when you give them time, standing with them, moving close, standing still, moving away, interesting in a more complex way. It’s useful what the File Note has to say …

All of her paintings are long and often arduous exercises in accumulation and excavation, aggregation and erasure, coalescence and collapse. Over many weeks and months, surfaces are work and reworked, abandoned and returned to, scraped back and covered over.

So that what we see in the final painting is a sum of all the images, the marks that have been there before and partly obscured, painted over, nudged, shifted, changed. Change, that seems to be the key word for Sillman. As if, even though she has had, finally, to accept that a work is finished, it’s only finished against her wishes. Against her aesthetic.

We’re committed to something scrappy but good, earnest but smart, ironic and not cynical, a strange FORM! … We haven’t figured it out but we love art that offers change above all: insistent, unremitting change that won’t resolve into finality or finesse. We want to know what happened before and after. We can’t stand the knowingness, the smugness, of a goddamn good painting.

Amy Sillman. The OG#11. Metamorphoses. 2017

In an slightly earlier sequence of drawings shown here – the Pink Drawings from 2015-16, using acrylic, charcoal and ink on paper – a large display of them spread along one wall – the pleasure comes from the vitality of the colour, the vigour of movement, the swiftness of the marks, the solidity of the black.

Pink Drawings 2

Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16

Pink Drawings 1

Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16

The most recent of the works on paper are more instant, direct and disturbing – one series was started in response to Trump’s election. In some there is a single figure on his or her knees, vomiting, shouting, screaming …

Rebus for Camden

Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018 

… in others there is a swift overworking of line and colour not dissimilar to the technique used in the paintings.

Dub Stamp 2

Amy Sillman, Dub Stamp, 2018

The powerful double-sided pieces that comprise Dub Stamp in its entirety  hang in a line across Gallery 3, the more immediate, predominantly black and white figures along one side – the one that presents itself first – shifting on the reverse to a mixture of brightly coloured abstraction and strongly inked irregular shapes and lines.

Dub Stamp 4

Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018

Dub Stamp 3

Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018

As you walk round, the images cluster against one another, coalesce for a moment and then divide. There’s an ugliness here and a hint of beauty: faced with the horror that underlies much of modern life, how might an artist respond? You can’t pin the answer down, it’s always shifting, changing. Try covering up the ugliness, the truth, and it will still show through.

Let me say again, this is a terrific show and it continues until January, 2019.

 

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Walhalla

It’s difficult, visiting the current exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the White Cube, Bermondsey, not to be overwhelmed. It’s not just that the individual pieces – sculptures, paintings, assemblages, vitrines – are, in themselves, large and powerful (the power to some extent deriving from their size) it’s the way in which  Walhalla takes over the  gallery more or less in its entirety. Step past the woman handing out the obligatory Health & Safety guide lines – If you accidentally touch the works, it is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly … Small children must have their hands held as a number of works have hard, rough edges at a potentially dangerous height – and immersion begins.

The central piece, from which the exhibition takes its name, runs the length of the central corridor,  bare bulbs overhanging rows of folding beds, empty save for heavy sheets of crumpled lead. The aftermath of a disaster, a terrorist attack? Are we in Aleppo? Mosul? World War Two or is it Three? An institutional dormitory, the gallery notes suggest, military sleeping quarters or battlefield hospital. As we weave cautiously in and out, damp and already somewhat depressed by the foul weather outside, I catch myself thinking, not too flippantly, of some not-too-distant outpost of the NHS.

At the far end of the corridor a much enlarged black and white photograph shows a single figure walking away into a barren winter landscape. The artist, making a break for freedom, free to give us his interpretation of the world? The hero of some dystopian novel, the last man left standing? Perhaps both …

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Walhalla : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]

Keen as ever to gouge out the horrors of his country’s history, Keifer’s paintings yoke together Nazi architecture and Norse mythology, portray vast landscapes in which towering buildings are being eclipsed by flowering clusters of blueish grey, corrosive and beautiful.

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Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

One room is given over to a single piece, a spiral staircase rising up into the roof, discarded clothing and strips of film hanging from its railings; its primary inspiration, according to the gallery notes, the ascent of Valkyries as they lead those killed in battle to Valhalla; to me, the Holocaust, genocide of European Jews in World War Two.

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Sursum Corda : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]

Step into one room given over to a single installation and it is like stepping into Kiefer’s storeroom –as the title says, his arsenal: trays and boxes of paper, paintings, a myriad of things; old broken prams, machinery; strips of film that hang everywhere, film rendered, like so much else, into lead; a safe containing papers that have been burned and all but destroyed, another that remains locked and impossible to open; a version of Thor’s anvil that is displayed in another room. All of this, Kiefer seems to be saying in  this exhibition, all of history, memory, mythology, is my life, my work … your world.

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Arsenal : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)]

The exhibition continues at the White Cube, Bermondsey, until 12th February.

Speaking Frankly … 2

I must say I am never bored when I paint. In the first place, the world is very interesting, life is interesting and seems an unearned gift; perhaps one wants to give something back. In addition, painting is a wonderful game. One has little power over the crises in life, or in friends’ lives. One cannot control wealth or poverty, happiness or misery. I am only in control when I am in the studio. Then I am close to life.

It would be more daring to be a bullfighter, or a stunt pilot or an acrobat! The daring I’m talking about is simple daring in painting … I’m naturally timid. I’m frightened of  heights, I can’t swim, I can’t drive, I’m afraid of large dogs. It seems to me sensible to avoid the seaside, bridges and Alsatians. Painting is a relatively safe way of being courageous.

from Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting – Catherine Lampert.

Marlene Dumas: Image as Burden

There are art shows currently in London – Diebenkorn at the RA, for instance, or Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern – you can – should – enjoy for their sense of colour, of form, of texture, of light; for the sheer pleasure of looking, of seeing, finding familiar, finding new. Sheer pleasure. Delight. Then there is – or there was until today – Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, also at Tate Modern.

There is – don’t get me wrong – much pleasure to be found here in the manipulation of paint, the movement of line, the expressiveness of colour; there is even humour, though it’s not too long before the smile is smacked from the side of your face.

This is the art of confrontation: art as confrontation.

These faces, large portraits in close-up. Don’t look away, fucker! Look at me!

Although it’s the last morning, traditionally the time when people flock to shows they have not got around to and don’t want to miss, the galleries are far from crowded; more so than when I first visited a few weeks before, but not enough. [I want to got hold, somehow, of the hordes who shuffle slowly, reverentially, round in front of canvases like Monet’s water lillies, and drag them here by the scruff of the neck.]

The Image as Burden. You get the sense, from what she says, that there’s an uncertainty always for Dumas in what she does as an artist, what she paints. As if she’s never quite satisfied with the results. And yet painting is what she has to do. The work. Her work, a burden; images as burden.

She doesn’t use living models (because something in the traditional artist-model/male-female role feels – is – wrong?) but photographs; the people in her paintings have already, as she says, been framed, made into an image, an image which may already be, for them as subject, a burden. Because of their colour and ethnicity, their gender and sexuality. A burden which, in a sense, Dumas takes on and amplifies, forcing us to acknowledge it, be aware.

Love, death, pride, shame, identity.

Perhaps most striking are these big, close to overwhelming portraits which are so much a feature of the exhibition, faces filling the frame, little to encourage disengagement, distraction. Just the eyes, the paint, the picture frame, the forcefulness of colour: the eyes that don’t let you go.

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Towards the end of the exhibition, which, at Dumas’ suggestion, is arranged chronologically, are a number of paintings in which the subject matter is more specifically political in a non-personal sense, paintings that deal with international conflict, terrorism, martyrdom. One, Stern, uses as its basis the same photograph of Ulrike Meinhof, dead in her Stammheim prison cell, previously used by Gerhard Richter. Another, Dead Girl 2002 – again, hard to look at, hard to look away –  is based on the newspaper photo of would-be terrorist who was killed in her attempt to hijack a plane.

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But for me the single most striking image in the show is the 1994 work, The Painter, based on photographs of Dumas’ daughter, Helena.

images-1It’s the gaze, of course, like so many of the others in the show, challenging, confronting you, daring you to question, answer back; the pose, strong, assertive; the hands that have been dipped, one supposes, deep into paint; the right hand blue with the paint the child has smeared, as children do, across her body, the left hand dark red with paint reminiscent of blood, a forecast of (menstrual) blood to come. Above all, defiant; subject as well as maker; painter of her own portrait, mistress of her own image.

Seeing it the first time I was propelled back immediately to those evenings when I had sat at our daughter’s bed while she slept, no more than three or four years old and yet, it sometimes seemed (as in a different way it does now) that she was so much older than she looked, so much older than her chronological age. As if that head, that brain already contained everything and in feigning a kind of childish ignorance she was only playing a game, playing along – save for those moments when not in words but in a look she made it clear just how much she knew, how aware she was, aware of what was happening now and what was to come.

Historically painting was seen as female but, the males were the painters, and the females the models. Now the female (the daughter) takes the main road. She paints herself. The model becomes the artist. She creates herself. She is not there to please you. She pleases herself. The question is not “Who is she?” but “Who are you?”

Marlene Dumas