Brooklyn Museum, February 16 – October 19, 2008
Ghada Amer is best known for works that at first glance seem to be Abstract Expressionist paintings but are actually pornographic images of women embroidered onto canvases with colored thread. It is Amer’s choice to let the thread spill from these images, pouring into rhythmic tangles that create visual affinities with Abstract Expressionism’s swaths of color and gestural lines. In her best pieces, thread and paint play off each other. In “Red Diagonales” (2000) Amer has painted the top half of the canvas with blunt strokes of bright orange bordered by two dripping patches of black paint. Sexually explicit images of supine women are embroidered diagonally across the canvas so that the loose threads fall into alignment with the streams of dripping paint, which defies voyeurism while provoking viewers to encounter a place where figuration and abstraction erotically blur.
With skill and wit, this ongoing series literalizes the familiar argument that hyper masculinity fueled Abstract Expressionism. If the style implicitly denigrated femininity and explicitly dismissed mass culture, what links femininity and mass culture better than images of women stitched into poses of fleshy availability? And while their criticism is scathing, these canvases, the foundation of Amer’s work, are inspired by a generative vision. “Red Diagonales” is delightfully surprising not only because it takes Abstract Expressionism in a thoughtful direction, but also because it makes salacious images less about objectification and more about pleasure.
Though her conversation with modernist painting shows no sign of halting, "Love Has No End" devotes itself to revealing the other dimensions of Amer’s work. What emerges most clearly from this exhibition is not the variety of her practice, but the fact that no matter what kind of material Amer gets her hands on, feminism finds a way to express itself. In 2001, she created the bold and simple "Hoy 70% de los pobres en el Mundo son Mujeres: (Today 70% of the Poor in the World are Women"), a large-scale public project in Barcelona. Amer transformed this statement into a 230-foot-long text running through a corridor stretching between two city avenues amid large, dilapidated apartment buildings. Each letter of the quotation is a bright red, functional sandbox. “Hoy 70% de los pobres en el Mundo son Mujeres” is public art in the best sense. It reveals crucial but invisible economic and political factors, refuses to make a spectacle of the place and circumstances in which the work appears, and attempts to effect change. The whole statement can be seen in its entirety only from far above, which somehow makes it all the more compelling to imagine a kid playing inside the sand-filled curves of an “s.”
“Hoy 70% de los pobres en el Mundo son Mujeres” highlights Amer’s attention to the materiality of language: the visual shapes of words as well as the histories that words reflect and influence. In 2005, she looked up the word “terrorist” in English, Arabic, and French dictionaries and found that except for one reference to the French Revolution, “terrorist” does not exist in an Arabic dictionary, which underscores the fact that terrorism is a Western concept. What emerged from this research is the installation “The Reign of Terror”(2005): wallpaper covered with various definitions of terrorism, which are most legible in the hot pink space between the wallpaper’s green garlands and bright yellow crowns. The best part of “The Reign of Terror” is not its message, but Amer’s ability to create now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t patterns that mime and reveal historical deceptions.
More recently Amer has created a quartet of paintings embroidered with definitions of love, freedom, peace, and security on square canvases painted with thin drips of icy white blues, pinks, lavenders, and yellows. While the titles of Amer’s paintings are in English, the definitions, in silky pastel thread, are in Arabic. As she does with her pornographic images, Amer allows the excess thread to spill from the letters’ calligraphic contours, perhaps to argue that nuance and beauty could fill the spaces between languages and cultures.
The exhibition takes its name from a humble but intriguing series of works Amer composed in 1990 based on an issue of Venus, a Cairo magazine that the artist describes as “Vogue for the Veiled Woman.” This edition of Venus featured Western-looking women dressed in Western clothing and veils. At the back of the magazine were patterns for women to sew this clothing themselves. Amer rendered these patterns in miniature, and then scrambled and recomposed them into abstract shapes that do not easily translate into charged political representations. In the most compelling piece from this series, Amer attached the tiny shapes of a dress pattern to a red string and nailed it to a sheet of plywood, like a laundry line. The title, “Love Has No End,” is sketched in pencil haphazardly and incompletely. In this focused yet expansive exhibition, Amer’s first retrospective, the work feels similar to these letters, fleshed out in some places but not fully outlined in others, suggesting what is yet to come.