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The Dartmouth
April 16, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Sillman explores the 'deep structure' of painting

Walking into Amy Sillman's studio, the scent of turpentine marks the oil painter who works within. This fall, the New York artist has been invited to Dartmouth as the studio art department's artist-in-residence. Armed with a barking chihuahua named Felix, Amy Sillman works out of a studio in the Hopkins Center and is a guest resource for studio art students.

The artist-in-residence program, which began in 1932, has attracted well-known artists such as Jose Clemente Orozco, Robert Rauschen-berg and Frank Stella. The goal of the program is to supplement conventional methods of teaching the visual arts by exposing students to important contemporary artists.

Each artist-in-residence spends one term at Dartmouth, presents a lecture at the Hood Museum and exhibits work in the Jaffe-Friede and Strauss Galleries.

Sillman, who currently lives and works in New York City, studied at New York University as an undergraduate and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of Visual Arts, also in New York. She earned her master's of fine arts from Bard College, where she is currently co-chair of the M.F.A. program.

Painted on paper and canvas in both oil and acrylic paint, Sillman's work is striking in its vibrant use of color. Her subject matter also captivates -- it's a deeply personal and psychological exploration of the mind on canvas.

Noting that element of her work, Sillman called her paintings "a portrait of my mind responding to the world, as everyone does every day."

Sillman described her work as "contemporary painting that wants to be both full of ideas and painterly-ness. I don't think there is a category. It's kind of an abstract representation about language and image."

In 2001, Sillman received a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, a highly coveted honor in the form of a grant that allowed her to take time off from teaching and focus on painting.

"I spent half a year retreating from life in Texas," she said. "I felt I got halfway where I wanted to be. I feel a great burning ambition that started in Texas."

During the time she spent in Texas, she produced a series of paintings called "Letters From Texas," which was on display from Oct. 1 through Nov. 3. in the Hop's Jaffe-Friede and Strauss Galleries.

Armed with a medium of turpentine and a little stand oil, Sillman said she has a rough game plan of what she is going to do before she starts a new painting. She called herself a "complete improv freak."

"I think paintings have a deep structure that you are sort of working with," Sillman said. "It's a kind of language you are developing, a kind of syntax there. It has to do with a spoken internal language. I don't think people compose sentences before they say them."

Sillman is very interested in language, and at Dartmouth she is taking Professor Peter Travis' "Introduction to Literary Theory" class. She noted that the class' approach to theory is not unlike what art students read.

Sillman cites painter Phillip Guston as one of her major influences. In that category she also included Ensor, Bosch, Monet, Stett-heimer, Picabia and DeKooning.

Sillman's belief in experimentation and improvisation is not unlike the approach of the abstract expressionists, who viewed the canvas as an arena for action.

"[Painting] provides me with a very interesting lab where I am thinking and trying stuff," she said.

Yet as Sillman points out, failure is part of the mix.

"I crash and burn a lot, and then you move to the next one," she said, noting that "emotion is just part of the game. When you hit, it is just incredible."

Sillman pointed out that artists have to commit themselves to the grueling nature of the solitary studio experience.

"Art is not for people who don't want to spend a lot of time alone and don't want to work their asses off," she said. Discussing her own devotion to rigor, Sillman called herself a workaholic.

"I am a studio rat," she said. "I put in a good eight-hour day at least."

For the young art student stumbling around the Clement painting studios, unsure of what to do next and what it even means to be studio art major or better yet an artist, Sillman is an invaluable resource.

Students can sign up to meet with her on Friday afternoons in the Hop.

"It was great," Rufus Lusk '04 said of meeting with Sillman for a critique. "She gave good, valid criticism and it was very helpful. She is very easy to talk to, very approachable. It is always nice to meet artists."

This past Friday afternoon, Sillman organized a gallery talk where art students, professors and other members of the Dartmouth community gathered in the Jaffe-Friede Gallery to discuss a range of painting topics.

Yusun Kwon '03, a studio art major concentrating in architecture, said, "Amy Sillman is the first artist to be so vocal and reach out to students this way. What she said about rigor, I really took to heart. It was a very inspiring way to think about it."

"I hope she continues to be so energetic about making art," Kwon added. "To her, it is like breathing. It is refreshing to see someone who sees things so simply and easily. It helps me to prioritize and define what it is I want to get out of this major."

At the core of being an artist, Sillman said, is dedication.

"At some point, if you are a real artist, you pour everything into your work. An artist would say it's the best thing they can do."