Fall 2008

Figuring the Abstract

By Kacey Light —

On a Saturday evening at theTang Museum, Amy Sillmanbegan her dialogue with curator, Ian Berry saying, “to think about someone’s work you need to go backwards. They are always coming from that, or contradicting it.” For many viewers familiar with Sillman’s work, her statement refers to how she progressed from her earlier, more figurative or landscape works to her now bright and bold abstract pieces. However, for those like myself, unfamiliar with her previous body of work, her statement can simply apply to her current show, Third Person Singular.

When walking into Sillman’s exhibit, viewers are first met with a wall of her black and white drawings that resemble figures. Around the corner viewers come across large, bold, bright abstract paintings. Then it’s time to look backwards, around the first corner, and revisit the drawings. The drawings are of couples, friends of Sillman’s, who agreed to pose for her. Sillman relies on the use of couples for her work because they are more comfortable with each other than strangers or models, and therefore create more interesting angles with their bodies. However, the drawings on display in the exhibit are not Sillman’s first observations. Her process is to sketch the couples, and then leave those sketches to sit for a while – days or even weeks – until she tries to draw them again, from memory. The result is a series of drawings that become more and more abstract. What the viewer sees in this exhibit is Sillman’s third stage of drawings.

The ability to see Sillman’s starting point is very effective. For most viewers, conceptualizing abstract work is more difficult than the art they are used to looking at, as it is nonrepresentational. By seeing Sillman’s thought process, she provides the viewer with a greater understanding of abstraction. Sillman related her experience of creating abstract works to when she first started viewing abstract art in college. She recalled that her art professors would recommend artists for her to look at, but when she went to look at them she would just not get it. So, she kept going back to look, and over time, and alongside the learning process of her looking, she began to understand – not necessarily about the art, but about how to look at the art. For abstraction she said, you even have to approach it with a sense of humor – hate even – before you can get it.

In learning to understand something so unfamiliar, Sillman tells her viewers that they need to just feel the art. In her show, her art suggests that one feel her color choices; look at the play between a palette where one half is bright and intense, and the other shadowy colors. Beyond the artwork itself, feelings of awkwardness are evoked in the viewer by the way the paintings are hung, unevenly spaced on the walls.

Since Sillman’s process is accessible to the viewer in the exhibition, her show becomes a unique learning tool which Skidmore students are already taking advantage of. It teaches people not only how to look at abstract art, but how it can be created. In looking at art, Sillman quoted a friend, saying, “the purpose of art is to return the viewer to him or herself, changed.” In terms of the creative process, her show gives viewers a place to start: take ordinary and familiar objects and look at them simply, noting lines and angles, the result being something nonrepresentational. The difference for Sillman is that she’s not afraid to rework things, re do them, or scratch them out – she seeks art that surprises her.

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