Long Read: Painting By Other Means: Amy Sillman's Recent Video Works
by Clara Halpern
Amy Sillman is interested in “experiments that exist between language and image which contain polarities of time and space and humor and vulgarity and high mindedness and low mindedness,” experiments that express relations and change relations of making.1 Sillman’s recent video works Pinky’s Rule (2011), an animated collaboration with poet Charles Bernstein and Draft of a Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop (2012) with poet Lisa Robertson contain all of these elements. Premiering at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, and then distributed online through a YouTube clip on BOMB Magazine, Pinky’s Rule is an animated drawing, comprised of more than 2000 images, created by Sillman on her iPhone (using her pinky finger), in collaboration with Bernstein as he wrote the poem.2 Pinky’s Rule reflects Sillman’s painting process formally, through the accumulation of mark-making and emphasis on color. In addition to this formal resonance, Pinky’s Rule enacts a form of ‘painting by other means,’ and draws into focus the oscillation between figuration and abstraction, engagement with poetry, and the diagrammatic and humor that is fundamental to Sillman’s painting practice.
‘It always starts fast then begins unwinding’ 3
Sillman’s paintings have a characteristic of doing and undoing. Critic David Rhodes has noted that there is a performative aspect to making which is integral to the way that Sillman’s works function in terms of layering, covering and revealing.4 This performative aspect is present in Sillman’s paintings, but is heightened in both videos through the marks that show the traces of her fingers dragging across the screen, transitions and layering, simultaneously making and becoming the image.
Sillman is one of a number of painters experimenting with the iPhone as a painting tool. David Hockney has had several exhibitions of work done on iPhones and iPads. Hockney’s iPad drawings have also been shown as videos that reveal each addition and subtraction of marks. By revealing these layers, the animations of his drawings fulfill a yearning to be a voyeur of his process of pushing paint and, through this other medium, give a feeling of insight to his painting process. Sillman’s videos go beyond the recording of Hockney’s process, as her action becomes folded into the work itself, engaging with the poem, rather than remaining as documentation.5
Katy Siegel has described what she terms the ‘Luxury of Incommensurability.’ This luxury lies in the possibility of holding two thoughts in mind simultaneously, allowing for both abstraction and materiality at the same time as representation.6 Sillman’s abstract passages are interspersed with more figurative images. These passages develop a temporal rather than spatial relationship to the ones that precede and follow them while allowing for representational images to emerge. This relationship between images occurs through an accumulation and subtraction of color and line, layer over layer. In Sillman’s work based on Lisa Robertson’s poem the two frames provide a split moment. On one side an image relates to the line just read and on the other the formation of an image based on the line being read at that moment. Layers of lines undergird the more representational images, while providing an abstract response to the poem itself.
'She wants to tell about it but not necessarily in language.' 7
As Mara Hoberman writes for Artforum “Marrying two of her preferred subjects—language and sexuality—Sillman’s animation illustrates the complexities of expressing (or denying) femininity when language itself is a gendered construct.”8 A line in Robertson’s poem states “She exploited a splitting at the level of process.”9 Sillman realizes Robertson’s title by translating the poem into a split screen video loop with a voice-over of the poem. Robertson writes, and Sillman reads: “She says space is doubt” the screen split, the process split, and through these layers of splitting a space is opened. This split allows a space where the complexities of the gendered constructs of language can be addressed through image rather then simply admonished–engaging the possibility for something else to be said, differently.
‘The picture can say only what the words tell it not too
As in the pope is in the silo
While the poetry boy re-doubles his and her effortlessness’ 10
The relationship between the picture and the words in Pinky’s Rule is a conversation rather than illustration. The work was produced through an exchange, and the animation reflects this back-and-forth that is at once diagrammatic and obtuse. The images do not illustrate the words, rather the poems speak from the images and the images reply in turn.11 Bernstein uses the term ‘ekphrasis’ to describe the project, an apt description of how it functions, poetry and painting leak in to one another describing simultaneously the essence of what the other depicts. In Draft of a Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop, Lisa Robertson’s poem from 2009 precedes the video, but a similar push and pull is generated. The image is not at the service of the word, instead both are in conversation, shifting one another.
These engagements with Bernstein and Robertson are part of a larger exchange with poetry in Sillman’s work. In a transcript of a conversation with Greg Bordowitz, Sillman described poetry “as that which exceeds what is merely necessary, but is still crucial.”12 She aligns it with love, play, sex, desire, invention and imagination, ideas that are embarrassing to talk about but are necessary, arguing that the shame or discomfort around them is also essential.
Sillman’s “couples project” is a series that developed from drawings of couples from life, many of her close friends. After initial drawings of couples together in their homes snuggling or intertwined, Sillman does another drawing from memory, and continues to produce more drawings one after the other, which gradually becoming more abstract.13 Curator Anne Ellegood writes in Third Person Singular, that Sillman’s work proposes a structure, an idiosyncratic semiotic system, that involves a fragmentation and reassembly of the subjects of these paintings.14 She writes, “We might call Sillman the inventor of a failed language, or perhaps a linguist whose language of expertise keeps changing or growing.”15 In both videos Sillman performs a similar operation, building and fragmenting images while simultaneously undertaking an exchange with poetry that also exceeds it.
‘The pictures can tell only what the words hide, and the words are hiding for their lives in a witness protection program on pony drive.’ 16
David Joselit has argued for a category of painting that he terms ‘transitive’, which he says is exemplified by an attention to the behavior of objects within networks, and the passage or translation of objects into new contexts.17 Joselit writes about Jutta Koether’s work as one example of transitive painting:
'What defines transitive painting, of which Koether represents only one “mood,” is its capacity to hold in suspension the passages internal to a canvas, and those external to it. In this regard, painting since the 1990s has folded into itself so-called “institutional critique” without falling into the modernist trap of negation, where works on canvas are repeatedly reduced to degree zero while remaining unique objects of contemplation and market speculation.'18
Joselit argues that transitive practices offer a way out of what he calls an “enduring critical dead end: the reiﬁcation trap,” He notes that paying an artist a fee for services such as a lecture, performance or temporary installation also requires the same commodification. He separates out the reification of painting because he says the object ceases to circulate in a network. He writes: “The problem with the term ‘reiﬁcation’ is that it connotes the permanent arrest of an object’s circulation within a network: it is halted, paid for, put on a wall, or sent to storage, therefore permanently crystallizing a particular social relation.”19 The practices that Joselit discusses are invested in discourses surrounding circulation, but they themselves don’t sit outside of this system.
Joselit refers to Sillman’s work at the end of his text, not as transitive painting but rather as contemporary painting that is complementary to transitive – ‘the diagrammatic.’20 Sillman has expressed her interest in the diagrammatic as it relates to her practice, describing a diagram unfurling as a spiderweb, that you make as you go along. A diagram “which is based on a framework but which is not necessarily a knowledge based epistemological framework, it’s a form which is situated at the hinge between your body and your mind.”21 Pinky’s Rule unfurls in a reciprocal way, and Sillman’s marks could be interpreted as an evolving diagram in relation to the words in the poem, while the words attempt to describe what the drawings depict.
In an interview with Gregg Bordowitz, Sillman touched on the discourses around painting:
AS: No, it’s like a painting has to have an alibi.
GB: Does a model of conceptual painting dominate now?
AS: I don’t even think conceptual painting exists… It’s a ridiculous non-category. All painting is conceptual and is also partly driven by desire.
GB: In order for painting to be appreciated it has to have a conceptual apparatus…
AS: It has to have an excuse. A kind of validating intellectual structure to allow for something. 22
Sillman has a thoughtful approach to circulation, as evidenced by the extension of her practice into collaborative works and other forms such as ‘zines and the poster “Some Problems in Philosophy.” Sillman’s project at the now closed Orchard, Representation, sought to create a collective portrait of Orchard’s members and community.23 There are a set of expectations that are often difficult for painting to shake off. Sillman’s work in other mediums provides a shift, almost to paint by other means. 24
In a series of assignments by artists facilitated by the Getty, Sillman encourages the students to take a color walk, noting how color functions on a walk through their town before thinking about color in artwork in the museum. Sillman’s nuanced use of color is visible throughout her videos. In Pinky’s Rule, colors flash across the screen highlighted by Bernstein’s words, “The sparrow she sings it differently, orange and green and all the colors in between, white’s blue reply, red’s recalcitrant lover, aquamarine and tin, torn covers.” Sillman’s voice reads out the names of the colors as they come over the screen, and the combination of Bernstein’s words and Sillman’s choice of hues takes advantage of the animated format, generating a synesthetic effect.
Sillman recognizes the circulation of her work, but emphasizes the need to really talk about an object:
'I’d like to really, really talk about a painting’s, or art object’s qualities. This is an underdeveloped muscle in the critical apparatus. I think we should be looking at objects formally, while understanding that, of course, content is part of form and form is part of content, and see how objects are working with content and abstraction now and what they are really doing. I wish there was less embarrassment, less tension around a kind of formal and poetic response, where you describe something in terms of feeling or association, or you look at how something plays, rather then just how it signifies, or how it deals with the literary, marketplace or distribution systems that lie around it. Some critical language around art may fall short, and need to be refreshed, or be dropped.' 25
Although the manner that a work like Pinky’s Rule circulates on the internet is distinct from the circulation of a painting on canvas, it would be unfortunate to focus on that or on its avoidance of the reification of painting. To discuss it in these limited terms would be missing what this avoidance of the ‘reification trap’ supposedly affords in favor of another easy statement. Instead we should be attentive to color in Sillman’s video works, and the formal qualities of the tactile and the digital strokes. The two-way translation of the poem into image and images into words. Or how painting changes when it is made of light rather than light from outside. The transition that Sillman’s work takes in a project like couples, from figuration to abstraction, can happen over time in the frame of the phone. These video works are painting by other means, bringing together aspects of Sillman’s practice, such as color, mark making, and processes of layering and scraping away that are connected to painting. Like a spider web that weaves between Bernstein’s words and Sillman’s drawings, across abstraction and representation, through the ‘o’ of poetry, and hinging on humor, Sillman’s recent video works illuminate and expand ways of making.
Clara Halpern is a curator based in New York.
1 Amy Sillman, 'All A Are Not B' by Susanne Leeb with David Joselit, Prudence Peiffer and Amy Sillman, Triple Canopy, n.d., http://canopycanopycanopy.com/podcasts.
2 Raphael Rubinstein, “2011’s Top Ten in Painting,” Art in America, December 27, 2011, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/finer-things/2011-12-27/top-ten-in-painting-2011/.
3 Amy Sillman and Charles Bernstein, Pinky’s Rule, Animated drawing, 2011, http://bombsite.com/articles/6343.
4 David Rhodes, “AMY SILLMAN Thumb Cinema,” The Brooklyn Rail, 2011, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2011/12/artseen/amy-sillman-thumb-cinema.
5 A selection of these images have been made in to an edition of prints.
6 Katy Siegel, “Frieze Talks: The Luxury of Incommensurability”, October 13, 2011, http://www.friezefoundation.org/talks/detail/the-luxury-of-incommensurability/.
7 Lisa Robertson, Draft of a Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop, 2009.
8 Artforum critic’s pick: Amy Sillman and Lisa Robertson, in Paris - Mara Hoberman
9 Lisa Robertson, Draft of a Voice-Over for Split-Screen Video Loop, 2009.
10 Sillman and Bernstein, Pinky’s Rule.
11 Charles Bernstein, “Amy Sillman & Charles Bernstein, Duplexities,” Jacket2, October 13, 2011, http://jacket2.org/commentary/amy-sillman-charles-bernstein-duplexities.
12 Amy Sillman and Gregg Bordowitz, Amy Sillman ; Gregg Bordowitz, Between Artists (S.l.: A.R.T. Press, 2007), 7.
13 Anne Ellegood, “Third Person Singular,” in Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular, Opener 15 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y: Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, 2008), 56.
14 Ibid., 55.
15 Ibid., 56.
16 Sillman and Bernstein, Pinky’s Rule.
17 David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” October, no. 130 (Fall 2009): 128.
18 Ibid., 129.
19 Ibid., 132.
20 Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself.”
21 Sillman, All A Are Not B, by Susanne Leeb with David Joselit, Prudence Peiffer and Amy Sillman.
22 Sillman and Bordowitz, Amy Sillman ; Gregg Bordowitz, 15.
23 “From One O to the Other: Rhea Anastas, R.H. Quaytman, Amy Sillman,” Gallery website, Orchard, n.d., http://orchard47.org/testshow.php name=From%20One%20O%20to%20the%20Other.
24 In the article ‘Provisional Painting,’ Raphael Rubenstein referred to Mary Heilmann’s paintings as an approach to “painting as ceramics by other means.” He notes “treating painting as if it were ceramics, that is, as a medium free of weighty cultural expectations, is key to Heilmann’s art.” Raphael Rubinstein, “Provisional Painting,” Art in America 97, no. 5 (May 2009): 122–135.
25 Sillman and Bordowitz, Amy Sillman ; Gregg Bordowitz, 16.