As I walked into Gladstone Gallery my eyes shot straight ahead, across the space, to a blurry composition of striking colours—yellow, white, green, black and a few other colours I couldn’t quite make out yet. The masterpiece was big and bright against its’ white background, commanding attention. Even at the opposite end of the gallery, each individual component of the painting was so intense that, when combined, a rich mix of emotion exuded from the canvas. Each work, as a matter of fact, in American painter Amy Sillman’s exhibition, Twice Removed seemed to have this effect.
The complexity and vigor of each work combined with the scale and sheer volume of paintings created a seriously tense space. On occasion, a sense of discomfort washed over me. No, perhaps discomfort is too strong… Unease. I felt a wonderfully perplexing sense of unease. Perhaps this was just an adjustment to the new, Covid19 gallery protocol. Or, alternatively, the artist had formulated an atmosphere that took some getting used to before attempting to understand it (something tells me it’s the latter.) To be honest, in hindsight, I like the challenge and the idea that the audience had to do some work on their own and be patient, in order to fully grasp what was going on here. At the time, though, something about these works invited me in, closer and closer, until they had me, totally transfixed. Then they pushed me right back. I went back and forth and around until I was practically walking in circles, completely disorientated. Colours, textures, lines, shapes, and figures (an arm or leg practically dangling on the edge) wrestled and fought, connecting and diverging with almost palpable energy. Most of the paintings were also quite big (about 60 X 40” or bigger) only intensifying their independently supercharged aura.
There were, however, some exceptions. Unlike the vast canvases that characterized most of the exhibition, a collection of about twenty, much smaller, works on paper were carefully arranged on the wall. Each work (Untitled, 2020) depicted different kinds flowers, some clustered in a vase, others (mainly of sunflowers) on their own. The series of conventionally beautiful paintings hung in the first room of the exhibition, perhaps functioning as an introduction to the artist and her work. Or, for those already familiar with Sillman, a reminder that while she may be known for her abstract art, she’s an incredible classically trained artist as well.
Sillman didn’t stay with these figurative works for long, though. In the same room, she returned to her signature style, juxtaposing the flower series with an expansive abstract work. The large, (81 X 75 inches,) painting beamed with a spectrum of pinks, oranges, reds, and blues. Thick brushstrokes intersected and aligned with vibrant hues of colour; The painting, entitled Field, offered strength and energy, and at the same time held a raw restlessness. Sillman’s ability to capture the essence of duality and divergence lead to an unbelievable physical manifestation of the anguish that has recently come to define everyday life.
Sillman refers to the last few years as “a constant state of chaos and catastrophe.” Field, the flower paintings, and even large works on paper that lined the second room, don’t outwardly represent complete devastation. But an undeniable and domineering internal tension pulsed through each painting. This vigor seemed to be galvanized by a contrast between structure and chaos.
Numerous artists have confronted the year of 2020 and each disastrous event that has come with it. But few have conversed with the essence of contrasts and contradictions You don’t need me to remind you of the despair, disaster, and for some, immeasurable loss that has marked recent years. I will remind you, however, that despite the turmoil, people maintained a desperate desire not only to keep living life but also to embrace a new, completely overturned, world. Perhaps attending huge concerts, big (or little) parties, performances at the theatre, meals with dozens of friends, etc. etc was not the be all end all… Instead, we were left with lockdowns and quarantine. Though the concept was foreign, there was an effort across the world, to make the best of it. Whether it was neighbourhoods, and cities across the world coming together to cheer and clap for those who fought Covid19 on the front lines, or people visiting (from afar) and checking on an elderly neighbour, or a weekly zoom hangout/ “happy hour” with friends, we did what we had to. And hopefully, we will continue to.
Amy Sillman Twice Removed ran September 30th – November 14th, 2020 Gladstone Gallery 515 West 24th Street