Ghada Amer at Cheim & Read

Detail ImageGadah Amer, The Woman Who Failed To Be Shehrazade (2008), acyrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas, 62″ x 68″

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Ghada Amer’s recent pictures at Cheim & Read continue her exploration of the “feminine dialectic” through the appropriation of pornography. You might not initially consider the work political or salacious—unless sinuous runs of color and encompassing fields of patterns float your ideological and prurient boats. But then there are the images not quite obscured by Amer’s updates of Abstract Expressionism: Women striking poses lifted from the pages of Hustler, or something like it, anyway.

Equating the macho bluster of Jackson Pollock with crass titillation is an appropriately ironic stance for our been-there, done-that post-feminist age. But the thing is: Amer loves Pollock, not as a target of derision, but for his ambition, elegance and dogged pursuit of the ineffable; it’s there to see in the work. This is where Amer rankles—her lyrical abstractions sell themselves short with gimmickry. Aesthetic pleasure is flattened when, say, Who Killed “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon?” is revealed as the Sapphic equivalent of Where’s Waldo?. Porno is the cheapest device in the book. It’s galling, really—Amer is better than that.

These paintings are only tangentially made with paint. Thread is the chosen medium, and Amer employs it with uncanny sensitivity. Her gift with the stuff is undeniable, not least because it transcends novelty. Like any artist worth her salt, Amer employs materials both as physical substance and as a conduit for metaphor. How exactly it is that thread and stitching are transformed into something as organic and unfettered as poured acrylics is a conundrum and, more important, thrilling. Amer delights in the painterly slur, the constancy of pattern and spidery traceries of line.

But then there’s The Egyptian Lover, wherein Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty wends her way through a straight guy’s fantasy of woman-on-woman sex. It’s like punctuating a sunset with a Bronx cheer: beauty is stunted by a punch line. Maybe Amer decided to play the porno card in order to curry favor with an elite culture perpetually enamored of the transgressive. After all, how sexy can formalist abstraction be? Given Amer’s renown, she’s succeeded brilliantly. But the life of art is different from careerism—and considerably less forgiving.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 19th edition of City Arts.

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