Amy Sillman

Imagine a use of the word writing which might be thinking or looking.

— Richard Foreman

Among the most interesting and complex versions of this ... is what might be called the relationship of subversion, in which language or imagery looks into its own heart and finds lurking there its opposite...

— WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory

Amy Sillman Flowerface, 1994.
Gouache on paper.
I began writing this statement by thinking about the language of casual speech rather than that of text, and my paintings as a concrete form of raconteurism or literal figures of speech. It struck me that speaking and painting are both daily acts of improvisation that I perform; they are both intuitive and deeply reasoned processes that I use to summon and transform the anarchic, fragmented, repressed, and marginal. I make an optical poem out of this stuff, the visual and the verbal refract and extend each other. In practice, none of the models of polarity between body and mind, between thinking and doing, between reason and the irrational make sense to me. I'm playing in the street, at the intersection between word and image, form and content, and I look forward to their collision. In fact, recently more than ever before, I've left words intact in the paintings exactly as they float through my mind while I'm working, acting like catalysts for the visual and vice versa.

Amy Sillman Measles, 1994.
Gouache on paper.
Every day I welcome the raw, the goofy, the urgent, the eccentric, the disrupting, the associative and dissociative, the distracted, the embarrassing, the transient, the interesting, and the fearsome into my life, and language is the welcome mat, the first translation device from the body of sensate cues I intuit. Painting is a physical thinking process to continue an interior dialogue, a way to engage in a kind of internal discourse, or sub-language—mumbling, rambling, stream of thought, murmuring, thinking out loud, naming, uttering, a voice in your head. So language is not just a cognitive device, a ground of critique, a pedagogical mechanism, a negotiable social structure.

Here's the big difference, for me: while language is a chronological system going only forward in time, like the voice-over to your home movie, painting allows for a revision of time itself through editing, erasure, compression, simultaneity. In painting you can wipe out, cover up, remake your body, re-envision your dream, imagine and then protect yourself—in fact, painting is a protective, tender gesture in a way that language as I practice it is not—j'accuse! (I always hated girls who wouldn't say anything.) Language is also a way to critique, hate, refuse. Language is a weapon for me to use as much as to be used by. In this way, I've always trusted and liked language—I find it reassuring. Sometimes I feel like an out-of-control, monstrous satellite with only a little nose-cone of inner language to guide me. How do I know that I'm not monstrous? Because you can tell me I'm not. I understand its function to suppress and control, but language can be familiar, intimate and available, the one trustworthy thing you have, sometimes the only sibling you've got. I say this as an only child.

Amy Sillman is a painter who lives in Brooklyn. She is currently on the faculty of Bard College.


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