Ryan Lee is pleased to present Emma Amos: Black Bodies, an exhibition of paintings by the artist and educator. Amos, known for her witty, probing, and masterfully colored figurative paintings, began her career in New York in the early sixties. She was the youngest and only female member of the African American artist group Spiral and worked as a textile designer for Dorothy Liebes while she established herself as an artist. Spanning four decades, Black Bodies highlights Amos’s continued celebration of the black body as a source and site of power and beauty.
Throughout her career Amos has used figures to ground her narratives. The black body—whether abstracted, anonymous, or recognizable as her own or that of an important historical figure—serves as agent, theme, and subject of Amos’s interrogation. Works such as Tightrope (1994) combine postmodern preoccupations like the constructed nature of images and a suspicion of master narratives with identity politics. In Tightrope, Amos paints herself in a Wonder Woman suit and black robe negotiating a tightrope strung over a frenetic blur of spectators and disembodied eyes. In her outstretched arms she holds two paintbrushes in an X and a t-shirt printed with a nude female torso. The torso is taken from Paul Gauguin’s 1899 painting Two Tahitian Women, which appears miniaturized in photo transfers onto fabric at the four corners of Amos’s painting, punctuating its border made of African fabrics. Quoting from both the modern art canon and popular culture, Amos makes clear that she is an active and powerful agent—artist and super hero—in a balancing act. She assumes the role of the female artist, while she acknowledges the risk involved in challenging inherited perceptions of the black female body as a sexualized object for visual consumption.
Amos’s paintings from the eighties and early nineties remind viewers that the power of images is culturally determined, and that it is necessary to be conscious of and to question the value systems that imbue these images with meaning. The 1995 painting Thank You Jesus for Paul Robeson (and for Nicholas Murray’s Photograph - 1926) explicitly grapples with these concerns via the figure of Robeson, a singer, actor, athlete and Civil Rights activist. Amos paints Robeson’s nude body as it appears in Murray’s photograph, taken after Robeson had concluded his football career and graduated from law school. Murray’s original black and white photograph appears seven times in a vertical row flanking Amos’s portrait, opposite a row of photo transfers of a Greco-Roman frieze. Amos’s emphasis on the sculptural nature of Robeson’s form, and its juxtaposition with images of classical masculinity, suggest that ultimately all images—and the ideals they promote—are constructed.
Amos’s recent work explores the graphic and sculptural potential of her exuberantly painted figures. Look to the Sun (2014) will be exhibited for the first time. Amos has written that she hopes her paintings “…dislodge, question, and tweak prejudices, rules, and notions relating to art and who makes it, poses for it, shows it, and buys it.” While consistently dealing with fraught themes of the representation and (in)visibility of black bodies, in Amos’s oeuvre the black body as form and force remains exalted and empowered.