GHADA AMER 2011-2013
The connecting thread between the paintings and sculptures by Ghada Amer presented at her third exhibition in Korea is neither conceptual nor thematic, but rather the pondered result of a section in time, that of the period 2011-2013, that clearly defines the creative moment at which the artist now stands. As well as revealing her mature pictorial style, the selection shows how she has opened up to a new and intense line of sculptural experimentation and how her dialogue and long-standing collaboration with Iranian artist Reza Farkhondeh have become consolidated.
Ghada Amer has always defined herself as a representational artist, and through her works she has approached themes such as desire, love, sex, the power of language, gender differences and ideological authority. The sense of exclusion she experienced during her studies in Fine Art in Nice aroused her awareness of inequality. Over the course of two decades she has worked with images of women carrying out domestic tasks, iconic stereotypes out of fashion reviews and fairy stories, and erotic scenes from soft-core porn magazines for men. Such existential and political content has been shaped by a visual language in which embroidery as a minor art form, but also as a mode of feminine writing, challenged masculine control of pictorial tradition despite being nourished by it.
Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza declared that “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.” And Ghada Amer has persevered in her intuition and search, arriving at the fullness of a personal style that has unfolded in painting and sculpture, but also in graphic works, installations and garden design. The artist considers all these supports and disciplines a way of working in the expanded field of painting. As the design of garden beds, for instance, turns into a canvas, the plants and their flowers become strokes of colour. In 1997 she designed her first garden in Crestet, France, going on to create others such as Women's Qualities (2000) at Busan Museum of Art, Korea. Before making the latter, she asked the museum staff to describe the qualities they valued in a woman, and 'wrote' in Korean characters on the eight flower beds in the museum those most repeated by the people she interrogated (submissive, chaste, fair skin, etc.). When the plants bloomed, the words turned deep red.
The paintings in this exhibition revisit the classical supports of canvas and stretcher, while thread is the specific linguistic element in their vocabulary. The artist's skilful use of this material recently led her to declare with satisfaction, “I feel I have finally learned to paint with thread.” Unlike the dripping technique, in which paint was flung directly from the bucket by Abstract Expressionists (an act that has been interpreted as a metaphor of male ejaculation), or the use of the paintbrush (as a projection of the phallus), Ghada Amer's embroidery weaves a plot in which spontaneity and control come together to create serialised shapes, rhythms and cadences. Her compositions are abstract in appearance and yet representational in content, and their pictorial space may relate to musical pieces or translate the sensual rhythms of matter. The thread motifs create patches of colour and outline faces, while the abstract grounds and floral arrangements reassert her preference for serialised compositional patterns. In terms of rhetoric, games of repetition, concealment and contrast play an important role, for they define visual impressions and articulate the conceptual interpretation of the art work.
“I learned painting through art history and the tradition of painting is part of my language. What I am adding to the History of Painting is the question of the place of women, the question of the craft versus Painting and above all the use of a feminine medium (sewing) that allows you to paint alongside with the traditional male medium (painting with brushes).”
Amer constructs a criticism of prevailing masculine tradition and insists on establishing a dialogue with the history of painting. As many other female artists like Louise Bourgeois or Kimsooja have been doing since the mid-seventies, she champions the female contribution to aesthetic discourse. Exploring her links with the modernism of painters such as Matisse, Léger and Rothko, and revisiting artists such as Velázquez, Goya and Giotto, she declares herself particularly close to the dramatic quality of some of their paintings: “There is a certain retained drama that I like in the Spanish old masters ... and I think there is something similar in my work. In fact, all my work is almost about a specific emotion that I have, either about the world, a person, a friend, a lover, or politics, etc. It is very important to transmit that emotion to the viewer in a way that he/she can feel it because she/he can relate to the same experience. This in a way becomes "beauty". This is for me when a work is successful ... The emotion has to be retained, otherwise it becomes too expressionist and we get more drama than beauty.”
The paintings in this show examine the topography of Amer's women in ecstasy, of her pictorial referents and of the threads that fall on the canvas. Save for one, all the titles are followed by four letters, RFGA, the initials of the names Reza Farkhondeh and Ghada Amer. The acronym points to the 'unofficial' collaboration between the two artists, and acknowledges the contributions made by Farkhondeh to the creative process. As a result of their long-standing friendship and spontaneous dialogues, the pictorial space becomes an exercise in hospitality, a shared territory, a game of reciprocity and mutual enrichment that Amer has always striven to make explicit: “My long term collaboration with Reza is first of all a shared aesthetic intelligence. We both come from a similar background, Muslim raised, transported to the West, loving art against our family, a very acute awareness that we do not really fit into the Western History of Art and certainly not in the Eastern ones ... All of this has developed into a friendship and into an existential experience: we cannot make art without the eye of one another and this has led to physically collaborate. We do not have conversations with each other, we have a visual language that we communicate with, it is very strange ... Reza simulates my creativity and challenges me. And I think I do the same for him ...”
The collaboration exists at two different levels: in the acronym that has featured in the paintings since 2001, and in the individual and joint signatures that since 2005 have appeared in the graphic work, a medium in which authorship is shared. In both cases, the limits of the ego, of complementarity and of the elective affinities that allow two separate entities to converge in one and the same body of work are issues that remain open. Amer and Farkhondeh thus participate in a sustainable economy in the realm of emotions and of knowledge, occupying a new relational paradigm. When French philosopher Gilles Deleuze defined the term 'Fidelity' in his Abecedary (a series of interviews broadcast on French television in 1996, the year after his death), he spoke of two potentialities that joined forces and thus be transformed through a secret connection.
The titles of the paintings are often jointly decided and stem from the impression or feeling that the final composition awakens in both artists. Here Comes the Sun – RFGA, for instance, is associated with the energy of dawn; the yellow patches of colour and wavy lines of Fin d'Été – RFGA allude to our memories of summer. Sindy – RFGA is named after one of Amer's new assistants, in a practice that recognises and remembers the hard work they do : “I always title (after asking their permission) with their first name the first piece they embroider.”
Among all these recent paintings there is one, entitled Beneath the Blue Sky – RFGA, that is especially meaningful because it hints at a new development in the artist's trajectory. Painted in deep blue, it evokes the darkness of night and is related to the idea of cosmic emptiness. At first glance it appears to be an abstract monochromatic work, but a closer look reveals sequences of embroidered motifs that remind us of traces of injuries, scars. Wounds are associated with cuts that tear the skin, gestures that pierce surfaces and encounter different tissues. Moreover, in connection with her recent sculptures, Amer updates the idea of spatial discoveries, travelling beyond the pictorial surface and thus identifying with the visionary oeuvre of Italo-Argentinian artist Lucio Fontana. When Fontana pierced a hole in a canvas or tore its surface with a stiletto or a knife, his intention was to reach the darkest depths of space, concerned as he was with the dichotomy between surface and depth, beginning and end, empty and full.
As Fontana had previously done, Amer resorts to oval shapes and models the void. The five sculptures presented in this show were made by cire perdue, either cast in bronze coated in gold or with a black patina coating, or cast in stainless steel that was polished or painted. Following the assembly of the various parts of each work, they were polished to attain a reflective shine.
The artist herself has declared that when she began the process of creating her new sculptures, her purpose was to explore the void: “My main thoughts here were rather formal. I wanted to make an empty sculpture and I wanted this sculpture to have an important shadow that would be added on or be part of the sculpture itself … I also wanted to make sculptures with lines ... something like writing in space.” This process of research led her to create egg-shaped sculptures in which the flowing movement of criss-crossing wavy lines creates a dynamics of concealment and transparency that allows us at once to trace the metal lines and penetrate the space with our gaze.
The oval is a primeval shape, welcoming and maternal, that has been used by numerous artists, from Fontana to Constantin Brancusi or Henry Moore. In Amer's sculptures it defines the place in which the figures are set and helps viewers recognise their actions. The works can be read in three-dimensional terms, or else they can be seen as flat pictorial planes because there is a perspective where spectators can suddenly discover and fix the image of figures or read some words. These sculptures may play with the mimesis established by the kiss or by the shape of a heart, yet they may also evoke a mystical dance or even relate to political events.
“The Blue Bra Girls, for instance, refers to the incident that took place during an uprising in Egypt in which a female protestor wearing a veil was beaten by the police and had her clothes torn. A photograph taken of her revealed she was wearing a blue bra, and so she was called 'the blue bra girl'. I had an idea for a sculpture in which women would look defiantly at the public. I thought it was important that they should all have their eyes open and be looking at the viewer. I also wanted the women standing, instead of lying down. Then the 'blue bra girl' incident took place and so I called the piece after that, as a homage to all those women who stand up for themselves and fight,” says the artist. In the spherical sculpture entitled The Words I Love the Most, Amer takes a series of words like desire, depression, passion, crazy, anxious, all of which are written in Arabic and are related to love. The spelling of these words forms the lines of the rounded sculpture that has a slight inclination, like the Earth's axis or the bodies of dervishes performing spiritual/mystical dances. The words actually create a sort of writing in reverse, for they can only be read on the inside by looking through the outer surface of the sphere, in which they appear inverted. To quote the artist herself, “We do not understand love, so we only see the right side when we are far away.”
By means of a linguistic logic that makes it self-supporting, Amer's oeuvre pursues a beauty that combines form and the informal, drama and meaning, the beautiful and the political. Her works have an organic consistency that produces visual pleasure, carrying messages that relate to our ways of being in the world.
By enjoying the pleasure and the drama of her own thoughts and emotions, and by translating them into her artistic practice, the artist extends the limits of a tradition that will embrace women as creative subjects in their full right. The desire of discovering new territories for painting and larger spaces for aesthetic experience as well as for the ethics of generosity and hospitality might be one of the reasons why she and Farkhondeh have chosen Référence à Elle as the title for this show.