Journal

The journal on portikus.de operates as an extension of the exhibitions at Portikus themselves. A wide spectrum of contributions including essays, interviews, fictional writing or photo- and video-contributions provide a closer look on artistic interests and reflect on topics that concern our society, politics and culture.

"Oh my god, this is another kind of code language!"

Amy Sillman, Bernard Vienat
2016-08-17

On the occasion of Amy Sillman’s exhibition the ALL-OVER at Portikus Bernard Vienat talks in the following interview about the artists early years and her artistic practice.

BERNARD VIENAT: You started your career around the 1970s, at the same time that John Baldessari burned all his paintings. So it was certainly a time of hostility towards the medium. What was your survival strategy?

AMY SILLMAN: I didn’t have a “career” in the 1970’s, I got out of school in 1979. And the idea of a professional “career” was not what how were thinking back then. But for survival I had a day job: in the 80’s I worked at a couple of magazines, doing what was called “paste ups” back then, we fixed the pictures and type in place with wax. I wasn’t a punk with a Mohawk, but I was certainly spirited in a punk way. I think that underneath a lot of what I was doing was a “fuck you” attitude. Like, “I’m not supposed to paint anymore? Fuck you!” “I’m supposed to try to be famous? Fuck you!” So I would say I had a strong sense of negation. That was the ethos of the time, and I persisted in painting, as a pleasurable reversal to what we were supposed to do.

VIENAT: How did you first come to the idea of wanting to be an artist? And moreover to paint?

SILLMAN: I came to New York, not to do art, but to study Japanese at NYU. I had been on a wild trip to Japan, and was interested in studying a foreign language, one that was utterly undecipherable to most people I knew. I was interested in the idea that I could write in a code. So I studied Japanese, but I took a drawing class on the side, from an “action painter” teacher who literally played jazz in the classroom and taught us to look at a nude but draw it with turpentine-soaked rags. In this drawing class, I suddenly thought: “Oh my god, this is another kind of code language!” It wasn’t what I was thinking originally because I didn’t have any role models to be able to imagine that artist was something I could do. So in a weird way, I backed into it via the brush.

VIENAT: What other kind of teaching were you exposed to afterwards?

SILLMAN: Well, after the action painter, it was all these 1970s types: feminists, conceptual artists, filmmakers and post-studio people. I would say 95% of my friends had abandoned making paintings because of the bad politics that painting seemed to embody, the neo-expressionist critique was in full swing. All my friends were in class with either Joseph Kosuth or Hans Haacke. So it was really not cool to be painting, but I guess I was always interested in doing it in spite of itself.

VIENAT: You started your career after really important theorists had spoken about painting and the way to perceive it. How do you react for instance to Greenberg’s theories? Speaking about a punk attitude, didn’t you think: My father said so, so I’ll go against it?

SILLMAN: But Greenberg wasn’t my father! If anything he was more like a grandfather. No one I knew read Greenberg then, and I didn’t really understand the politics of art history. I was curious about his article on kitsch and the avant-garde. But we did not read much theory of painting back in the 70s. Painting was already dead on arrival. I described it once to a friend as like squatting an abandoned building. I got all my ideas from elsewhere: dance, performance, experimental film, and writing. I was not able to work within the logic of painting, neither from OCTOBER nor Greenberg

Amy Sillman, Draft of a Voice-over for Split Screen Video Loop, in collaboration with Lisa Robertson, Installation view, 12.05.–28.06.2012, castillo/corrales, Paris



VIENAT: How did you start to work digitally?

SILLMAN: I got an iPhone, and I finally had a camera to work with. Meanwhile, I was invited to do a collaboration with a poet named Charles Bernstein in NYC. I know a lot of poets and I’m interested in expanded language. We worked by sending emails back and forth, me sending drawings from iPhone, him sending me new edits of a poem to illustrate, each one effecting the other’s outcome. After that, I was invited to do a project at Castillo Corrales in Paris, and I suggested doing another animation with a poet friend of theirs, Lisa Robertson.

VIENAT: Are you still researching in this direction or was it just a phase of your life?

SILLMAN: I’m still doing it. I love painting as an act-- but finally I have realized that in some ways I think like a conceptual artist, but one who works physically and a bit irrationally. I am deploying language and space as much I am painting in the rectangle. So in some ways, just getting an iPhone really opened up my whole work process - I mean, that was very liberating.

VIENAT: The New York psychoanalyst David Lichtenstein, writing about your works and the idea of “origin,” speaks about the psychoanalytical moment when the object emerges. Referring to Lacan: When you are painting, are you in this state of anxiety? What is your painting mood?

SILLMAN: It’s half enthusiasm and excitement and a kind of openness to what might emerge, and the other half dread. It’s literally both. I read recently that having a full, precise spectrum of moods is sometimes referred to as “granular” in psychoanalysis. I love that word. This spectrum of mood is visible, for example, in the spectrum of my palette. I use a mixture of “readymade” color, coming right from the tube, very bright and sharp and clear, like cadmium red or citron yellow, unmixed, in combination with these sludgy, muddy colors that are scraped off from all those under-layers of paintings that didn’t work. Those colors are literally draining in a bucket for months at a time. It gets dirty and shitty and sludgy… and I realized that it’s the color of shadow, dirt, dust, and death. I love palettes that are a combination of dirty, anxious colors, not at all nice, used with these fresh, gaudy, concentrated store-bought colors. I think a psychoanalyst would say my painting moods are granular!

VIENAT: If we look at your painting as an entire psychoanalytical process, is it an empirical process in which you construct archetypal elements?

SILLMAN: That sounds very nice, but has nothing to do with what I’m doing. Psychoanalyzes are not so clean. Painting could perhaps be called empirical in the sense of being experience-driven? But certainly not leading to archetypes. The psychological landscape that I’m working on is absurd and packed with conflict and irresolvable eruptions of something that you can’t name. It does not end in cognition or meaning, necessarily. And is not about universal truth.

VIENAT: There is a lot of interior space in your paintings. Is it more an environmental observation of your own studio or more an introspective process?

SILLMAN: The studio is this horrible room that we stay in all day long, a lot of the time alone, for those of us who have a studio practice, but we also all look carefully out at the world, and what I see is translated into memory. So I think that the space of an image is indeed a kind of space, rather than a “depiction.” Images go from out to in, AND in to out, maybe my idea of interiority is balanced between these. The studio has been critiqued as a form of bourgeois interiority, but of course there is no more interiority in the studio than there is while listening to the radio. The world comes in and out of all of us.

VIENAT: But what does it mean for you to understand abstraction?

SILLMAN: I speak that language. I go to the museum and am not confused by shape, color, line, transparency, scale, opacity, layer, mark, gesture, and edge. I know how to get in that car and ride around.

VIENAT: What then would be your criteria to judge an abstract painting?

SILLMAN: Abstraction is the “shape of content,” a form for releasing meaning, or building meaning. Form should not be decorative or imitative. So to me, abstraction is a way to make up a hybrid language, to speak in code, or in a strange voice. So my criteria would partly be: does this abstraction add to the strangeness, the surprise, the feeling of curiosity, enthusiasm, freedom, a break in the oppressive regime of what is already set? Does it feel like there is a person talking, a personal-ness, and a kind of invention in it? Looseness, rigor, freedom, necessity to get away from whatever is already plotted out? If so I would say it was a good use of abstraction.

VIENAT: A trend with contemporary artists like a few on view at the current Berlin biennale seem to mirror our present time rather than develop any kind of subtlety. What role does poetry play in your work?

SILLMAN: Poetry is really important to me, but I like poetry that acts weird rather than useful. It’s a communication system that doesn’t deliver the goods exactly-- instead it sort of illuminates some outer edge, playing around even with the actual vocabulary, or timing, to make it more precise, wittier, more perverse, more intense than usual. That’s similar to what you would hope for if you are thinking of trying to make a “better” painting.

Amy Sillman, the ALL-OVER, Installation view, 02.07.–04.09.2016, Portikus, Frankfurt/Main. Photo: Helena Schlichting. Courtesy: Portikus, Frankfurt/Main.



VIENAT: So what are you doing for Portikus?

SILLMAN: For Portikus, I basically made an art show that is kind of made out of these looping mechanisms: first, when you come in, there’s an animation that loops every one minute, with these little cartoon figures doing sort of absurd things, a straightforward narrative. Then you enter a gigantic room of printed and painted panels, which loop all the way around the room like a frieze. But it’s clearly made from an abstract painting language, not like the narrative in the animation. But the idea is about the viewer and the “machine” of movement—the animation moves itself but in the painting room, you move through it, and past them. Then the final little event is the zine and this little ceramic figure I made as a kind of coin box: you throw a coin into the mouth of the figure and the coin comes out its ass, through a hole in the table, and you take the zine, and this image “loops back to the animation in the front. It’s a complex machinery that I’m attempting. The panels themselves are inkjet-printed canvasses with some painting on top. They are based on drawings I did, which make it hard to say what is machine-made and what is handmade. I also scaled back on the color of my usual paintings in order to emphasize repetition. And the prints are of my usual drawings but increased in scale to the canvas size. I wanted to absolutely fill the room, but suppress some of the other usual painting options.

Amy Sillman, the ALL-OVER, Installation view, 02.07.–04.09.2016, Portikus, Frankfurt/Main. Photo: Helena Schlichting. Courtesy: Portikus, Frankfurt/Main.



VIENAT: What about the animation?

SILLMAN: The animation is there to provide a kind of joke on the classical painting situation of a “figure/ground.” In painting terms, figure/ground is term for making a distinction between the whatever is the “subject” versus the background. “Figure” can even be used for the abstract stroke, it doesn’t have to be an actual figure, but here I wanted to literalize the idea of figure as a kind of joke. It struck me that all the paintings are abstract ground, basically like a wallpaper, so I thought I would add a real figure. But who? I had no story until my class took an ill-fated field trip to Switzerland, which ended in a series of small but comical disasters, and I realized, bang, there was my story. I made a kind of Rube Goldberg machine, a wheel of misfortune, which you have to sort of get on to understand!


Bernard Vienat currently studies curatorial studies, a master’s programme at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule and Goethe University Frankfurt. He studied art history and philosophy at the University of Bern and at Freie Universität Berlin. He is founder of the art association art-werk in Geneva and manages the exchange project with Mexico DF Vorticidad.

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