My friend asked over dinner if any of us wanted to go for a float. I gave it exactly zero thought before saying, “Sure.” He booked our appointments for the next morning.

1. The float studio was in a nondescript strip mall, the glass display windows, tinted. We opened the door to find a woman, with hair resembling the inside of a geode, strumming a ukulele. “You here to float?” she asked.

We nodded and explained this was our first time.

“What is floating?” I wondered out loud.

2. We had two options: One could be in a space that looked like a walk-in refrigerator with standing water; the other would be in a pod-shaped tub with a lid, like a retractable clam. The room smelled of brine. “How deep is the water?” I asked.

3. “Eleven inches,” she responded, “filled with one thousand pounds of epson salt.”

We were told to shower, plug our ears with wax, get in, close the door, turn out the light, and lie on our backs, palms up. The density of the salt water would hold us up—even our heads, even if we fell asleep, we wouldn’t drown, she reassured us.

“For how long, again?” my friend asked.

4. “Ninety minutes.”

We exchanged looks. For some reason, we both thought the float was for 30 minutes. What am I going to do with myself for an hour and half in the dark? In total silence?

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BRB floating.

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5. “You can keep the light on,” she told us, if we wanted. But once I was in, lid lowered, and every science-fiction movie ever watched recalled, I was keen to give what was referred to as “space-dark” a whirl.

6. Sure enough, the water held me up. The length of my body bobbed to the surface. I pushed my palms downward against a surprisingly dense resistance. The salt stung surface scrapes. The temperature—though slightly cool in the beginning—soon matched my body temperature. I lost track of where my skin ended, and the water began.

7. I blinked, unable, sight-wise, to tell the difference between my eyes being open or closed. After awhile, I realized I was still holding up my head and bracing my lower half upward. I quit flexing. The relief was immediate. But then I lost my coordinates. I knew I was only a few inches from the bottom of the tub, but I felt as if I’d tilted upright and was head over feet.

8. In the darkness, my mind worked through one knotted problem after another. Then somewhere along the line, my thread of thoughts frayed and then disappeared. I lost track of time.

9. I heard my heart throb; my eyelashes beat together. My mechanics loud as airplane takeoffs; yet I floated way beyond cruising altitude. I wasn’t somewhere between departure and destination; I was anywhere.

The blue light came on. And an involuntary grin floated across my face from ear to ear.

My friend was in the lobby. “What’d you think?” I asked.

“Girl, I flipped off the light once and was, like, nope.” He laughed. “I took selfies and stretched, but my skin feels ah-mazing. You?”

“I want to do it, again.”

The geode woman nodded knowingly.

My art crush is showing in Bust: Artist Ghada Amer Makes a Feminist Statement with Ceramics and Embroidery.

For over 20 years, contemporary artist, Ghada Amer, has challenged the oppression of female agency through sexually explicit paintings. With a global perspective, whether resisting oppression in the East’s Muslim-majority countries, where she was born, or in the West’s Christian-majority countries, where she has since made her home, Amer’s oeuvre has continually expanded into bodies of work committed to the message of freeing women — an idea that often takes the form of parted legs, open lips, loose threads, and dripping strands of unveiled hair.

We met in the atrium of Cheim & Read Gallery to discuss her exhibition. Most of the artwork was created around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I was curious to see how the political context might have influenced Amer.

Portrait of the Revolutionary Woman (2017) greeted me in the entryway by way of an answer and inspired our conversation to interweave the tertiary threads of art technique, cultural critique, and pleasure.

Ghada Amer, Red, Black, and Gold Sculpture (2017); Women in White (2016) at Cheim & Read Gallery

Amer’s embroidered paintings and ceramic plates covered the walls, while the floor held a handful of podiums showcasing ceramic sculptures, Amer called her boxes.   

“Paintings are flat,” Amer said, “but on ceramic boxes you can see them in space. This for me is the pleasure. Making the painting into a sculpture.”

In front of Women in White (2016), she said, “I am always very critical about painting and about the history of art,” and gestured toward the painting embroidered with figures of women in poses appropriated from pornography. “Who writes the history?” Amer remarked. “What do you show?”

“We are fed this history of art with no women painters,” Amer continued. “We are fed that if abstract art is in the Muslim world, it is decoration, but if it belongs to the Western world, it is Abstraction. This is very problematic.”

 

Ghada Amer, Glimpse into a New Painting, 2018

We concluded our conversation before Glimpse into a New Painting (2018). From afar the colors swirl into abstract blocks of purple, indigo, black, and red, conjuring Cy Twombly. Yet to compare her work to the canon master felt similar to drawing connections to pornography. Both ends of the visual high-low spectrum prioritized the predominantly male gaze of approval.

Upon closer inspection, the figure of a woman—just beginning to disrobe—came into shape. She appeared intent on something yet undone. 

“All the time I am thinking,” Amer said, “how can I make a painting with my technique?”

 

Ghada Amer’s exhibition of paintings and ceramic sculptures is now showing at Cheim & Read Gallery through May 12, 2018. The complete exhibition catalog is viewable online.

 

 

 …if you’re female, or female-presenting, or if you’re queer, or a person of color, we have made a lot of inroads in a lot of different fields, businesses, but we are in no way where we should be—where we deserve to be.”

-Lola Flash

 

Lola Flash’s retrospective at Pen + Brush, 1986 to Present, honors creative activism at its finest.

As a queer black woman, Flash, at age 59, has used the medium of photography and photographic processes to confront the dual injustice of invisibility and stereotypical portrayals of gender, sexuality, race, and age for over three decades. Her portraits, many of which were taken with a 4×5 camera, serve to capture those in her communities who are often overlooked. Beginning in 1986, Flash documented her involvement with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) demonstrations and also employed cross-color film processing to reverse the printed photograph’s colors—further illuminating how one person’s blue-sky can be another’s fire-red horizon.

Now on view, Flash’s “Cross-Color” series presents a new world to behold, where black is white and what’s usually identifiable is obscured, exhibited alongside five portrait series, in which Flash invites viewers to see her world, her communities of individuals, in all their unique specificity. The “[sur]passing” series explores the spectrum of race; “surmise” captures fluid presentations of gender; SALT challenges ageism; LEGENDS spotlights leaders of the LGBTQ+ movement; and Incarceration, a singular self-portrait, is the inaugural piece in a series about the mass imprisonment of people of color. Together, this historic retrospective of seventy-one photographs spans a life of advocacy that Flash explains can be united by a simple message: “Look at us,” she implores, “How can you not love us?”

“A lifetime of creative activism needs honoring,” author Juno Roche, writes in the catalog accompanying the photography exhibition, and “needs acknowledgement and celebration.” Pen + Brush, the expansive gallery and organization that has been dedicated to championing women in the arts for over a century, is doing just this by kicking off 2018, another year of resistance, with the Lola Flash Retrospective, now on view through March 17, 2018.

Read our conversation at The Rail.

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