There’s a lot going on in Ghada Amer’s embroidered paintings (a selection of which are on view at New York’s Cheim & Read gallery through June 19). From a distance, many are wholly abstract—reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s drippy blossoms, Pollock’s freeform lines, and a Rothko-like puzzle of airy color fields. They’re pretty, pleasing, exquisitely executed and not terribly difficult to digest. That is, of course, until you take a closer look.
What appear to be delicate floral blooms are actually arms, breasts, and spread legs stitched into the painted canvas and obscured by messes of entangled thread. Candy-colored patterns are formed out of moaning women extracted from soft-porn rags, cropped and repeated in wavy yet orderly rows. Dark canvases are studded with dozens of topless models, their collective stringy hair creating an almost psychedelic effect throughout the entire tableau.
Click Image to View Our NSFW Gallery of Ghada Amer’s Paintings
This sort of naughtiness is more overt in other featured works (namely Who Killed 'Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?' 2010, in which a self-pleasuring vixen is boldly outlined in black), but it’s the “Where’s Waldo?” effect that is most fascinating. It can be shocking at first—the copious amounts of nudity, ostentation, “O” faces, all twisted, layered, sometimes even malformed. But you sort of get used to it. And in some ways, that’s the point.
Amer, who is based in New York, has been working with these images for quite some time. While the subject matter is unavoidably heavy (commenting on women in porn, women in art, and, of course, women in life) Amer holds that its use has stemmed from a very formal, very process-driven place: to upend the domestic, largely female craft of embroidery and take it to a big, bold, painterly place.
“I was always attracted to deal with the subject but I never dared, really, to do it,” says Amer, who was born in Egypt but spent much of her childhood in France. “Then I had to, in a way, because I was looking for a way to paint with embroidery. I was depicting women doing domestic activities and the embroidery itself was a domestic activity. I needed to find imagery that would really challenge the embroidery as a medium and contradict it.”
There is a tendency to link Amer’s use of pornographic imagery to her Muslim and Middle Eastern heritage, but it’s a connection that the artist staunchly rejects. The virgin/whore paradigm is alive all around the world, she says, and particularly in the United States. There’s a certain wrangling of it here—women breaking away from their own objectification in what is arguably a very de Beauvoir-ian way; a reversal of what is considered the “male gaze.” In her paintings women lose themselves in pleasure and (in many cases) quite literally take control, the threads acting as a veil of sorts, suggesting a more private space than, say, the pages of Hustler.
The show ends with a small selection of Amer’s far more graphic porn sketches and this marks the first time these works have ever been on public view. Though Amer holds that the stitched drawings and watercolors of women pleasuring themselves and playing with very NSFW toys are artworks in their own right, they read as source images—studies for the many less obvious, less bare, less naughty figures that appear and reappear throughout her stitched and layered paintings.
“I wanted to show myself that it is not pornography and that we can deal with these images as images of women,” Amer says. But now that she’s found what she’s looking for formally—a more gestural, more action-painting-esque means of stitching her way through a canvas—she might abandon the subject matter altogether. “Now the subject matter is not so important for me,” she says. “I feel a little bit liberated from these images because I’ve dealt with them for so long. I feel free from them. I can do them or I can do something else. It’s really much more, for me, about the painting.”
Rachel Wolff is a New York-based writer and editor who has covered art for New York, ARTnews, and Manhattan.