Ghada Amer is known for appropriating images of women taken from pornography, so it’s not unusual to encounter the stylistic conventions of x-rated material in her work. At her recent solo exhibition at Cheim & Read, big-breasted women display spread legs and vulvas; two women clutch each other passionately as one penetrates the other with a dildo; a single woman is seen from behind in the typical gesture of submission: butt out, back arched, looking coyly over one shoulder. Amer embroiders these images (which look like line drawings) onto canvas that has been stretched as if for a traditional painting. She leaves the ends of the threads untrimmed so that loops and tangles are left on the surface to interfere with the image and create a colored mess. This is often reported to merely be Amer’s connection to abstraction and expressionism, but the colorful turmoil serves to obscure the imagery and requires the viewer to exert effort to see the content of the image itself. This act of focused looking creates a heightened sense of voyeurism.
In “Color Misbehavior” three large canvases dominate the front room and the entire exhibition. The Fortune Teller (2008) is sewn with overlapping images of naked women in various poses. The tangled web of red, orange, blue, and purple threads partially conceal the representational forms; since all the lines of stitched thread are the same thickness, the layered images appear and then vanish as the eye passes over the canvas. But one image comes into focus and stays: in orange, Disney’s Little Mermaid, a clothed and serene counterpoint to the naked women around her, but no less compliant.
The Egyptian Lover (2008) is similar in its layered images and consistent line weights, but in this case the embroidery is done over primed canvas painted with beige, lilac, yellow, and blue. The drips of thin acrylic paint mingle with the “drips” formed by the long tangles of threads, blending the materials nicely. As with The Fortune Teller, a Disney character joins the orgy of naked limbs, this time in the form of Snow White. Her kittenish glance is directed over her shoulder. These two canvases portray transparent layers of fantasy women, conflating the myth of the vulnerable, forever-sexually-available woman with the delusion of the innocent and submissive girl. Combined, they create a madonna-whore tension. An obvious move? Maybe—but it is effective.
The title of Who Killed “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon?” (2010) points to Picasso’s well-known painting of distinctly unrefined prostitutes standing in unsubmissive, even aggressive poses. But in Amer’s work the woman depicted is hyper-groomed with perfect eyebrows, Chola-style eye makeup, and ironed hair. Drips of paint behind the stitching run like tears from her eyes. Amer answers the question posed in the title of who killed the sexually adept, self-possessed women and replaced them with the vulnerable and passive displays with which we are now familiar. Picasso’s women were nude, but Amer’s are naked.
The other work in the exhibition continues this theme. The next room contains canvases stitched with repeats of a single image, often almost completely concealed by masses of threads, and smaller embroidered-paper works that each show a single women in a pose that is sexual but not erotic. Amer uses these images to form a critique of woman-as-idealized-object, and tension resides in this shifting cultural no man’s land between acceptable fare and profanity. The work is dynamic and the content and materials present opposing notions of femininity. Combined, they create a mix of allure and repulsion.