By 2006, Amy Sillman had entirely banished from her colorful paintings the whimsical beings that had once populated them. An exhibition that year coorganized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Tang Museum at Skidmore included “portraits” of couples, though the works were entirely abstract. One felt her earlier figuration persisting as imminence or remnant in all the abstractions, sometimes to the detriment of paintings in which fussy, unresolved passages seemed at pains to compensate for the loss.
In “Transformer (or, how many lightbulbs does it take to change a painting?),” her latest exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins, Sillman seemed to have reconciled her past and present vocabularies. Growing the body large and fragmenting it in interesting ways, she gives the figural both a greater and a lesser role than in her past work. The tone was struck at the entrance in an impressive grid of 27 works on paper in gouache and charcoal, each 22½ by 15 inches (2009-10). Scrambled body parts, a few per drawing, are firmly locked into the vertical compositions by aggressive outlines; the drawing style is gawky and bold, reminiscent at once of Guston and Lam. To some, Sillman added color, washes of Kool-Aid pink, orange or yellow. Pentimenti impart a lushness to the surface.
These gouaches, along with a series of smaller drawings and a zine, riff on some of the multipurpose motifs developed in the large paintings-a lightbulb and flashlight in particular, along with a nose, a breast, a hand that gropes its way around and, most notably, a long armlike form with a little fist, which seems to operate as a surrogate gaze (something like a beam of light, only more solid). Establishing her artistic ties quite forthrightly, she reproduces as illustrations in the zine the famous outstretched arm with lantern from Guernica, along with lightbulbs by Guston, Picabia and Johns, and (less familiarly) by Palmer Hayden and R.H. Quaytman.
Such motifs cycle through a group of big paintings from 2010 each measuring around 90 by 84 inches. The compositions are divided up by Picabia-like devices-cum-bodies, which double as both images and lines. The big schnoz that anchors Nose is a flattened, open lopsided triangle with two circles humorously slid into one of its rounded corners. Radiating around the nose are delicately delineated sectors, some bright yellow, others subtle greens, with shadowy forms in the layered paint, so that the work has both a nice lateral spread and a melting into depth. At the top center of Drawer a silhouetted form, something like a downward pointing finger, seems to secrete a white, illuminating triangle within the nocturnal grays and greens. On either side, overlapping body-machines busily crank and churn. There could be no better emblem than this for the energy and wit that animated the show as a whole.
Photo: Amy Sillman: Drawer, 2010, oil on canvas, 84 by 90 inches; at Sikkema Jenkins.