Talking About Writing What She Said

I attended my first Frieze Session while painting. In my new studio I set up my laptop and half-listened to Amy Sillman in conversation with Andrew Durbin; an hour long Zoom interview between the prolific New York painter and the new editor of Frieze art magazine – one of the upper echelon of visual art publications. For reference, I have a copy from April 2018 that I’m too intimidated to read and I paid £50 to become a ‘Frieze member’ so I could attend this talk. Over the next year the thick, glossy tomes will arrive at my bedsit and I will studiously ignore them before one day, probably, taking them completely apart and sticking exhibition posters and in-depth analysis of the movers and shakers of the contemporary art world to my wall with masking tape. This is not New York in the 1960s, and there is no room where it happens anymore. We have members-only Zooms now. 

So, there I am, spray-painting and swapping brushes. She’s talking to Durbin about how she incorporates both writing and drawing into her practice even though she’s predominately a painter. On writing she says, “I think I just started doing it because it was kind of like drawing.” She mentions writing a long essay on drawing and then forgetting to put it in her most recent book: Amy Sillman: Faux Pas: Selected Writings and Drawings.

I have encountered a problem. I can paint and listen at the same time, but the journalistic instinct in me is too strong to ignore the truth bombs she’s dropping. I almost spill a large pot of bright pink paint as I scramble to note down another sentence. I am sure there’s filler words I’m getting wrong.

“I’m trying to hold on to this intimate, diaristic form,” she says, more or less. “Trying to write against… I want to know how to make significant form, significant objects. Things that seem powerful and touching and emotional.”

She’s talking about scale. Or about form. Or about writing. It’s hard to concentrate on both the painting I’m doing and the conversation. I don’t particularly want to stop doing either. I’m paying for this studio space out of my Universal Credit and it’s important to put the hours in. It’s probably safe to misquote slightly.

She works in silence when she’s painting.

They talk about the distraction of sound. She asks Durbin, “I can’t think visually if there’s sound on and I can’t write if I’m painting. Can you?” He talks about how he would listen to music while writing when he was younger, seems to imply he doesn’t do it anymore.

They take questions from the audience. I am now sitting on the only comfortable chair I own, kicking cables away from wet paintbrushes, waiting for the latest layer to dry.

They’re talking about process. “What can’t be known? What can’t be said? What is on the other side of what appears to be a limit.” Sillman explains that she doesn’t know what she’s going to do when she starts painting. Neither do I. During my master’s degree I read up on automatic writing and have been actively trying to just let the painting be what it is, but for every decent outcome there’s several canvases that gain another couple layers of paint and not much else. It’s particularly hard with abstracts, a drip of ink can ruin or lift… you’re trying to tap into the feel of the flow of a brushstroke. They discuss painting through instinct. I close my eyes and pick up a spray paint can at random, pointing it towards the piece and pressing down on the cap. It fizzes and the paint goes over my fingers. There’s a knack to it, so the street artists tell me. She says, “I’m going to basically complicate what I did before, or deal with something I hate by imitating it… make the wrong move by/with the right feeling.”

Did she say “by” or “with”? It occurs to me that I should double-check every quotation, that the interview may be available to re-watch online for a day or two (or longer). Then I think about the time it will take to re-watch, the likelihood that I will end up transcribing the whole thing out of some fear of misquotation, how this article – like most of the ones I write lately – is unpaid. Should I even bother? Would I do the work if I knew I would be financially compensated. Isn’t the gist enough? If this was a live event, whatever I jotted down would have to be good enough.

I haven’t sold a painting this year yet. Or been paid for a freelance article. Though my Creative Scotland Bridging Bursary did come through. It’s hard not to feel like a fraud.

Evenings like this compound my professional insecurities. If I were concentrating fully would I be more accurate? I’m circling the edge of a self-doubt spiral.

The painting isn’t working.

“Everything that’s in my zines, essays lectures writings and drawings, those are all things that I can’t work out how to fit into my paintings,” says Sillman, probably. “I’m actually kind of a formal painter and I like to process things more, synthesise. It’s about editing.”

“I want to get to that brutal state like I’m making something out of urgency… I want to dig down to some place of urge and capture that feeling that you can get when you’re alone and it’s just you with your instincts.”

“When you’re trying to hear something that’s really hard to hear you just need to get quiet.” In that moment I am aware that I am alone, that I am listening to a broadcast and that these two people have no idea that I am here – struggling to manage my painting and my writing and my process. Trying to make all the pieces fit.

She’s talking about how she doesn’t hold many studio visits, that as a social person she finds the presence of another human being – even if ther’re not physically there but are present as a voice on the radio or something – too distracting. That when she paints she tries to cultivate a “space of isolation” where she can think and feel. “The art making practice is a rare moment of solitude or silence,” she says. I can’t remember the last time I painted in silence. It’s too intimidating. My work can be so highly personal, so imbued with desperation that I have to approach it sideways, safely.

I write in silence though. 

They talk about the impact of the work on others. How you know you’ve made something worthwhile.

I feel like I’m wasting good spray paint at this point. I clean my brushes, wondering if I should be putting the ones that have had contact with the spray paint in white spirit rather than just the hot water I typically clean my acrylics with.

The hot water is off for some reason today. The radiators are cold. I boil the kettle and am hit with an immediate regret – now I can’t hear what they’re saying. What if one of them says a sentence that could have changed my life?

The kettle boils quickly and I tune back in. Sillman is talking about the “deeply gratifying surprise” of a successful painting. “If that thing speaks to somebody when I put it out, it’s such a great feeling – I got it right, I hit the right note.”

They start to end the session. I check to see if I got round to asking a question and find that I did. I don’t think they answered it. What have I learnt? To listen to the painting I’m painting? To paint in silence? To let my writing and sketching and art-related activity influence and raise up my painting? She makes it sound like painting is a higher or at least purer form of art than drawing or writing. But I don’t think that’s what she’s actually saying. Now I’m confused as well as demoralised.

The painting has not worked. When I am next in the studio, I will dismantle it. The frame is so warped there’s no point repainting it white and attempting to do something more satisfying. I need to have a clear-out of warped, broken and damaged canvases, but I have a hard time throwing anything away.

Even half-heard quotations.

I still practice my shorthand daily. But lately all the events I attend are through a screen, so my instinct is to type. My touch typing is not as fast as my shorthand, though it’s a lot easier to read back. My main problem is that I try to understand what I’m hearing as I’m trying to note it down. That’s the wrong approach. You want to be a pure conduit. No-one cares what I think, or how any of this makes me feel, it’s supposed to be about the wisdom we can gather from these two titans of industry.

Is it better to half-attend and to be deeply affected, or to fully attend and feel like your time has been wasted? If I ever meet Amy Sillman or Andrew Durbin will I find this write-up embarrassing?

“I don’t care if I’m good at it,” says Sillman, closing the session. “I only care if it feels like a solid, eccentric, real form. And it just beams out. Imbued with some alimentary magic.”

Though I am pretty sure she didn’t say “alimentary”.

You can find Amy Sillman’s latest book : Amy Sillman: Faux Pas: Selected Writings and Drawings here.

And sign up to be a member of Frieze here.

Words and image: Ana Hine

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