New York

Ghada Amer

Deitch Projects

One thing I'm tired of—just so you know—is people setting up some dreary idea of feminism in order to justify the pretense that they themselves have done better. “I started with the proposition that feminism had failed,” Ghada Amer told Art News last fall “but it was a positive failure, meaning there were still things to work on.” Amer may claim to be reclothing the bones of feminism, but perhaps she's just gnawing them for whatever substance her work has. By giving her shows titles like “Pleasure,” she hopes to distance herself from the so-called didactic art of her elders—but then she had better make good on that promise.

Amer's best-known tactic has been to embroider pornographic pictures of women on canvas. Quite rigorous feminist investigations of the use of such imagery had led to quite vigorous proscriptions; these Amer broke, while at the same time skirting the problems of voyeuristic objectification by obscuring her nudes under another layer of stitches imitating the drips and spills of Abstract Expressionist painting. She would also repeat her images, setting an ancient principle of embroidered cloth—the principle of pattern-against AbEx's supposed spontaneity, which was also opposed by the methodical labor of sewing. This subversion of AbEx's masculinist baggage through the traditional “women's work” of embroidery was another way Amer propped up her use of the sexualized female nude.

It soundsbetter than it looked: The thin, spindly, saatchy quality of Amer's reluctant embroidery was a little pitiful at embodying any sort of sexuality. If the point was a return to pleasure, it was painfully hedged and qualified, and seemed all too the work Amer tried to deny: art called forth by theoretical calculation rather than real aesthetic sensuousness. The new work does a little better, but not much.

Suppose you wanted to drain the life out of an antique Muslim scripture that encyclopedically lists the varieties of human eroticism. It wouldn't be easy, and why would you try, but if you did, making the text look like Louis Vuitton luggage might be a good route. Amer has now moved from the scribbles of AbEx to the equally masculine geometric boxes of Minimalism. She gentles their hard angularity by sheathing them in cream-colored cloth, which she covers with embroidered writing in golden thread. A zipper runs around the upper seam of each box, proposing the suitcase rhyme, or at least some kind of non-Minimalist functionality. The boxes are then piled higgledy-piggledy in stacks.

The text, we are told, dates from the eleventh or twelfth century, but later interpretations of Islamic law have made it virtually unavailable in the Muslim world. It is a fascinating read, here narrative, there prescriptive, here archaic, there savvy even by contemporary standards. Amer, however, has arranged the lines to read circuitously from face to face of the boxes, and since they sit on top of one another, whole panels cannot be read. More to the point, she is piggybacking on the interest of the text without lending it much interest of her own: The presentation is fundamentally anemic. The gold thread signifies visual luxury without constituting it; any number of embroiderers, not to speak of Fifth Avenue maroquiniers, have produced richer cloth with less rich materials, any number of calligraphers have produced more gorgeous script, and any number of artists have undone Minimalism in more inventive and challenging ways. The quotational use of text in art is fine with me, but Amer might have served this particular document better by arranging for its publication in full.

David Frankel