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    thank you for painting
by Peter Schjeldahl
 
     
 
Amy Sillman
Miniature Illinois
1997
 
Cry, Fatty
1997
 
Escalator
1997
 
Diana Cooper
Small Blue
1997
 
Small Blue
1997
(detail)
 
The Black One
1997
 
The Black One
1997
(detail)
Amy Sillman, Feb. 27-Apr. 4, 1998, at Casey Kaplan, 48 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.

Diana Cooper, Feb. 14-Mar. 21, 1998, at Postmasters, 80 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.

"I have an eye for the beauty of ugliness, awkwardness, isolation," Amy Sillman writes in a statement for her current show. "Like a fatso, my paintings are built for comfort, not for speed." Sillman, a 41-year-old New Yorker from Chicago, is a lyrical neo-Surrealist specializing in coloristic and textural sublimities. She delivers emotional unease at a pitch of friendly whispering. She told Faye Hirsch for a recent article in World Art, "Surrealism is the other white meat." Also: "Painting is a performative record of not knowing where you're going." And: "Essentialism is really awful. Let's just take whatever we want."

When serious artists' statements become rangy and witty, rather than glazed or spastic with anxiety as they usually are, you suspect that artistic conditions have taken a turn for the better. It indicates that creative problems are being entrusted to rhythms of lived life rather than vested with the urgency of military operations. Of course, this counts only if the art in question is good. Sillman's paintings are so good, in a manner intensely idiosyncratic and insinuating, that I am fairly surprised to be writing about them.

Sillman is a painting lover's painter, providing kinds of joy that one may be inclined to keep to oneself. I would prefer to take such stuff home, having written a check instead of a review. (If I could write that check, would I be a working critic? Guess.) I want to look at it, not talk about it. In my apartment is a wall that hankers for Sillman's Miniature Illinois, a funny and classy, beautiful picture. Is its charm inexhaustible? Time would tell. Greeting me over coffee every morning, for months if not years, would be this:

A four-by-five-foot schematic landscape of brushy blue water, flat yellow hillside and washy pink sky. Banks of repetitive red strokes, like perfunctory decorative borders in a mode vaguely Asian, delineate shore and horizon. A gawky, impastoed little pine tree inflects one edge of the yellow expanse, which is otherwise blank but for pentimenti testifying to rejected material and a small, hovering, salmon-colored square. The picture's textures of layered and scraped oil and gouache, alternately shiny and as suave as vellum, glow like fresco. I lose my heart to the colors, at once bright and chewy, and am in no hurry to retrieve it.

Each Sillman painting stands alone, with a sense of emotional occasion that is part poem, part short story and part memoir or diary. Her vast, quietly astonishing repetoire of imagery can suggest Francesco Clemente interpreted by Milton Avery with helpful hints from Tex Avery (among other master cartoon animators). An immediate, easy allure draws a viewer into emotional waters that soon prove more turbulent than they appeared. Go see. A new, slightly difficult, densely erotic relationship may commence in your life.

New painting keeps improving while an I guess premillennial, eerie, conservative mood -- culture holding its breath -- lasts. Painting doesn't cope well with worldly convulsions -- except self-sacrificially, in drastic ways that, five minutes later, start another round of babble about the death of the medium. Painting is hard to learn and nurtures matures styles slowly. Even, or especially, when inventive in form or feeling, it entails deep continuities. For best effect, it needs ambient calm in which nuances can crackle. In a way very different from Sillman's but quite as ebullient, Diana Cooper's new offerings suggest the happiness of painting when history idles a bit.

Cooper, 33, a Harvard grad, is one of many present artists who might be termed parapainters, for whom the medium is more means than end. In her case, canvas stapled to the wall provides a field for hectic doodling and a chassis for slapdash 3-D elements in acetate, felt, aluminum foil, tiny pom-poms, catheters and pipe cleaners. She hews closer to pictureness than does the sculpturizing Frank Stella, say, or Jessica Stockholder, but her drive to colonize room space from the wall is similar. And her manic funkiness, with tacky tools including markers and ballpoint pens, is even more aggressive. The result should have no right to be gorgeous, but gorgeous it is.

What's doodling? It is mark making given neither impetus nor resistance by the conscious mind. With no reason to start except distraction or to stop except tedium -- boredom succeeding boredom -- doodling weds the hand to physiological dither in real time. Why would an artist indulge in it? To fill up space as well as time. Cooper's garrulous, effectively meaningless evocations of electrical and plumbing charts, architectural plans, biological diagrams and whatnot get the job done. The job is painting or, at least, something that richly satisfies an appetite for painting, so let's not quibble.

Better singly than en masse, Cooper's compositions incessantly restage a ritual of creativity run amok. They are distinguished from each other mainly by the fact and mood of predetermined color. (Their apt titles include The Black One, The Multicolor One and Large Pink.) Inspired details, such as pipe-cleaner reliefs recalling the game of Chutes and Ladders and pom-poms nested like eggs in plastic pockets, are so numerous as to neutralize each other. At issue is a process that builds through obsessive-compulsive behavior to cadenzas of chipper abandon -- craziness incurred and transcended. A high, even elegant formality reliably arrives in the nick of time, a la The Perils of Pauline, to save the day.

Both Sillman and Cooper, while as unlike as a belletrist and somebody ranting on a park bench, conspicuously cede control to higher or lower, more-or less-than-personal powers. Sillman's breezy evocation of Surrealism, as straightforward technique, is to the point, as is Cooper's willingness to resemble an Outsider with an acute case of horror vacui. Why paint if you're not going to involve your psyche in the process? But in each case, tight, feverish premises lead to wide-open, refreshing conclusions. The reason may be a new and contagious confidence in painting itself.


PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.