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by Joy Garnett
|There will be lovemaking, but no love-less sex; desire, but no gazing at it... Indeed, the idea of virtue as the province of the feminine is the single thread that unites -- and ultimately will unravel -- virtually all of today's disparate feminisms.
-- Libby Lumpkin, Nine Little Art Histories, 1999
Feminism can be empowered by seduction.
-- Ghada Amer, in Elle Décor, Feb.-Mar. 2000
Ghada Amer, the Egyptian-born artist who was educated in Paris and Nice, is having quite a year. Her work is included in both the Whitney Biennial and in the exhibition "Greater New York" at P.S.1; she was included in last summer's Venice Biennale and the Santa Fe Biennial, and also in biennials this year in Lyon and Kwangju. She is scheduled to have solo shows at the Centre d'Art Contemporain (CCC) in Tours, France, and at the Institute of Visual Arts (INOVA) in Milwaukee.
Amer's third New York solo show, entitled "Intimate Confessions," opened on Apr. 15 at the cavernous, spectacularly renovated Deitch Projects space at 18 Wooster Street in Manhattan, and is slated to travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art later this year.
In the narrow side gallery is a small work, featuring the phrase "Love Hurts" embroidered in blood-red thread on top of a dove-gray line drawing of a smiling couple. This tiny piece, nestled among a grouping of works on paper, may exemplify Ghada Amer's unerring sense of subtle contradiction. The redness and hardness of the message, underscored by the pale, demure rendering of the innocent lovers, embodies the startling tension that is the common denominator in all Amer's work, both in the formal sense and in terms of the many conflicting and irresolvable meanings she stirs up.
Ghada Amer's paintings are a heady, multilayered study in ravishment. She makes tracings from pornographic magazines of women arousing themselves or one another and embroiders these autoerotic figures in repetitive patterns onto brightly painted (purple; orange) canvases. The trailing thread-ends, anchored with gel medium, are not trimmed, but rather are made to shimmy and wave across the canvas as expressive loose ends, in an effective visual pun. In her most recent works, Amer's monochrome grounds have been replaced by multicolored Pat Steir-like downpours, or Morris Louis-invoking stripes, adding yet another layer to the eye-play, not to mention the subtext of desire.
Viewing Amer's works involves a visual shift. Their indisputably abstract appearance when seen from afar irrevocably changes, almost uncomfortably for the viewer, as one moves closer to the canvas. What had appeared to be a mass of tortured lines gradually realigns itself into highly explicit figures, displayed -- or just plain "splayed" -- in a repetitive pattern. The overwhelmingly Ab Ex textures of the canvas suddenly slip into the backseat, becoming merely a ground against which an emphatic erotic content must play itself out.
In a recent essay on feminist art in the '90's, the art critic Libby Lumpkin writes, "Nowhere … do we discover what a woman might want; only what she does not." Ghada Amer's work refuses to bow to the puritanical elements of both our general culture and what could be called "institutionalized feminism," with its persistent myth of feminine virtue. The dance of revolving stereotypes, of desire and virtue, lust and denial, exposure and veiled elusiveness, are teased-out on the surfaces of these canvases, and left unraveled in all their complexity. Unresolved, sexed up and as yet unconsummated.
If there is rebelliousness in the feminist reading of this work, then in terms of Islamic culture one might identify Amer as an iconophilic enfant terrible -- the Egyptian bad girl. But she is not interested in cheap sensationalism, nor does she desire to offend. Amer takes pains to avoid any misunderstandings. In her sculpture Private Rooms, a rack of hanging satin clothes bags, now on view at P.S. 1's "Greater New York" show, Amer excerpted chapters from the Qur'an which deal specifically with women, and embroidered these verses on the surfaces of the sculpture.
As the language of the Qur'an itself is considered sacred, there are very strict rules as to cutting, excerpting, and taking portions of it out of context. Amer not only followed these rules to the letter, but went one step further and chose to use a French translation, not the original Arabic, specifically to avoid any possible misunderstanding -- her aim is not to breach anyone else's code of conduct, but to translate across what are, at times, impossible boundaries.
Despite Amer's deep, authentic respectfulness for her own culture, and for the European and American cultures into which she has inserted herself, there are historical conditions which must be taken into consideration when regarding her work. Islam's unconditional monotheism prohibits figurative representation, which is traditionally seen as a sacrilegious attempt to replace reality and to infringe upon the Divine -- hence the extreme, elaborate development of patterned abstraction in Islamic art over the centuries.
A postmodernist reading of Amer's work places it "after Pollock," as part of the "feminist critique of modernism." In terms of Islamic conventions of repetition, these abstract works are a means to attain or express unity and wholeness through an experience of parts. Clearly, it is impossible to state with any finality that her work is Warholian or Islamic. We do know, however, that some combination of these elements lies entangled before us, for our pleasure.
Ghada Amer, "Intimate Confessions," Apr. 15-May 27, 2000, at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
JOY GARNETT is a New York artist and editor of the email newsletter Newsgrist.