'Third Person': The Thrill Is Gone

Amy Sillman's
Amy Sillman's "investigations" of the space between figuration and abstraction lack depth. (Amy Sillman, Above; Amy Sillman And Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, Below)
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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

There's something underneath all that paint in Amy Sillman's new solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, one of the museum's "Directions" shows devoted to up-and-comers. The artist, a rising star in the contemporary art scene, calls it "conceptualism." I say it's a gimmick.

You'll see it before you even get to the 11 more-or-less abstract canvases that make up "Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular." It's on the wall of preparatory ink drawings that greet the viewer just inside the entrance to the exhibition. Sillman herself acknowledges their importance, referring to the dozen black-and-white sketches in a gallery talk she gave earlier this month as the "real meat" of the project. She's right about that much at least. Looking at them is far more rewarding than looking at the finished product.

Here's how they figure in the process:

Fascinated by the idea of human pair bonding, Sillman invited couples she knew to sit for her while she drew them. Her only instruction? "Please don't take your clothes off." Other than that, the pairs posed as they saw fit, some stiffly, some casually. Later, back in her studio, the artist would attempt to re-create the poses without looking at the initial sketch. Several of those "memory drawings" (third-, fourth- and fifth-generation versions of the original) are what open the show. Walk beyond them, and you'll see paintings subsequently inspired by those and similar works.

Don't even try to match them up, though. Sure, the titles of the early drawings make anonymous reference to their subjects: "B & P" or "M & H," for instance. But although the paintings are similarly coded, minus one initial -- a truncated "B" here, an "H" there -- you won't find any visual clues that connect one image to its source. For one thing, the paintings look, for the most part, like inanimate objects. Sillman describes one, aptly enough, as resembling a mattress strapped to the roof of a car. At least the drawings look like people, however cartoonish (or "cartoonal," an artspeak neologism the artist seems to prefer).

That's by design. These aren't portraits, after all. Rather, the artist says, they're "investigations" of the space between figuration and abstraction. More artspeak? Yup. And nothing especially new, either.

Don't worry. Sillman knows it, calling the process by which she boils down drawings of recognizable subjects to unidentifiable abstractions "a short-term version of what it took Mondrian a decade to do." (That's Piet Mondrian, who was reducing natural objects to black-and-white grids accented by rectangles of primary color almost a century ago.)

All of which gives rise to questions. For starters, if all this has been done before, what exactly is the point? As curator Anne Ellegood writes in her catalogue essay, Sillman's paintings don't represent things, but " feelings in all their nebulous and difficult-to-identify ugliness." But if that's the case, why are they so bloodless?

And that's the problem with conceptual art, you see. As much as the underlying idea may be worth contemplating, it isn't often that it inspires much -- I don't know -- passion.

Sillman may have put it best. In describing the shifting of her attention -- away from her friends and their complex, sometimes even fraught interrelationships to a focus on the canvas and its formal issues -- this is what she says: "It's basically just moving from being in a relationship with those people to being in a relationship with an oil painting."

Directions: Amy Sillman: Third Person Singular Through July 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza) Info:202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 10 to 5:30. Admission: Free. Podcast: For a podcast of Amy Sillman's gallery talk, visit http://hirshhorn.si.edu/programs/podcast.html.

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