New York

Ghada Amer

Annina Nosei Gallery

An Egyptian-born artist living in Paris, Ghada Amer reminds us forcefully what it means to say that art transcends its subject: this transcendence is a refinement, a distillation taken to such a degree as to become indistinguishable from excess. At one level, Amer’s work can be described easily enough, and in the process of describing it one has the impression of grasping the categories through which her work can be classified and interpreted. She takes stretched canvas (or, in one instance, a blue cotton tablecloth) and “paints” on it by embroidering colored threads, using images taken from pornographic magazines but fragmenting and multiplying them (primarily through variations on the Modernist grid) so that they become obscured but never entirely effaced. One would hardly need to look at the works to know that they engage in a critique of the subjugating male gaze and encourage the revaluation of traditional women’s craft skills such as have often been disparaged in comparison with high-art practices like painting.

Certainly Amer’s paintings express a familiarity with that history, but she also knows that artworks can deliver something more. That “something” is precisely what pornography promises but fails to provide, namely pleasure, or rather what Roland Barthes called jouissance, bliss. On the one hand, these works, all untitled and from 1995 or 1996, are distant from the sources of their imagery. By rendering these openmouthed, open-legged women as outlines in needle and colored thread, Amer has generalized and abstracted them, extinguishing all brutality and imparting to them an almost folkish tenderness and simplicity. And then the color, unrelated to the content of the image and far richer and more vibrant than one would have expected from such slender means, provides sensory gratifications that become inevitably enmeshed with the imagery despite their distance from it. Amer does not confine her thread to a descriptive or representational instrumentality. As anyone who’s ever sewn a button knows, there’s always a length of thread that can’t be used. Amer simply lets this surplus perform its own superfluity or waste. Excess strands hang there, affixed to the canvas by transparent gel, as little calligraphic bursts and discharges of unmotivated color. If Amer’s patterning recalls geometrical abstraction, this minor outburst is the gestural or expressionist component in her vocabulary.

Yet on top of all that, Amer has simultaneously refined her images beyond any but the most distant recollection of pornography and freighted them with abstract luxuries of color, line, and pattern: turning nakedness itself into a coat of many colors, she never lets us forget that the work identifies itself with its sources to the extent that it remains fixated on the demand for sexual gratification, on carnal need. Rather than decry pornography’s defilement of women, she serenely demonstrates art’s superiority in the intensity and depth of the sensorial fulfillment it can provide.

Barry Schwabsky