March 16, 2009

CONFESSIONS by Amy Ritchie

What initially captures attention in Elka Amorim’s art are the intricate and ornate designs, the depth of which lure closer, giving the feeling of precious antiques unearthed from a basement. An ache for secret history comes alive and the yearning is not disappointed. Each small-scale piece (usually 12x12) regally demands attention in a sea of complementary pieces, each telling a singular story while portraying an essential fragment of an encompassing narrative—a life, a diary, a catalog of letters. The initial series is called Cartas de Amor (Love Letters), a title that might lend itself to shallow effusions of romance and heartbreak; but Amorim balances autobiography, symbolism and artistry with skill.
The Cartas are mixed-media collages, incorporating various media such as photography, drawing, painting, and text. All materials are manipulated by hand in meticulous detail, a process that in itself is an intimacy, a solitary making of self through craft and devotion. Amorim fictionalizes herself in both her content and her process, an act of self-revelation made public by means of confession; a term that is interchangeable with the word reconciliation in the Catholic Church. To reconcile the various fragmented parts of identity, to struggle for wholeness through the iconography of modern womanhood; these motivations are inherent in her compositions. In the spirit of predecessors such as Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, and Claude Cahun, Amorim utilizes photographic self-portraiture in character costume. But the fact that she employs self-portraiture in a confessional act implies a willingness to risk these fragile identities, and suggests a conflicting self-importance and self-mockery from which the fire of imagination creates a new reconciled self, one that might finally accept the contradictions as mutually inclusive.
Ana, one of the Cartas, depicts Amorim as a young lady of the 1920s standing before a curtain of text dripping like tears. In the left-hand corner is the single Victorian-style letter “I”. I am. The text is a type of confession “…slipping into oblivion and settling for a life of unhappiness. I am nothing more than an ordinary woman without your presence…” However, the woman is not meek or ordinary. Her gaze looks upward, independent, defiant. The image in the bottom right, a compositional balance to the Victorian ornament, depicts the woman holding flowers, now staring directly at the viewer. She challenges the viewer, and the lover to which she cries I am nothing.
Similarly in Frida Querida, Amorim poses as Frida Kahlo staring out toward the viewer; an overt reference to the renowned self-portraiture and autobiographical nature of the Mexican painter, but also a conversation with this powerful female icon. In Portuguese, Amorim’s native tongue, she asks: My dear Frida, who won in the end? The question can be construed as reference to the infamously torrential relationship between Frida Kahlo and her once-husband Diego Rivera. Who won? There is a pomegranate sliced in half among fruit and flowers on the table where Frida’s arm rests. The pomegranate is both a symbol of desire and death in varying mythology. Frida holds a cigar, a reference to independence and autonomy usually associated with males and her shawl bears the scientific anatomical heart. Amorim’s use of color, texture, and ornamentation creates movement in the collage. Even the text becomes ornament echoing that of the skirt fabric, and the heart echoes that of the pomegranate.
Another work that utilizes the pomegranate symbol is Arabian Nights, a work that embodies the influences of classic Middle Eastern ornamentation and the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who often uses Arabic text as a visual element in her photography. Amorim poses as a Muslim woman, fully clothed and wearing a hijab. She is framed in a circle of floral ornamentation, again staring directly at the viewer but with a curious innocence instead of defiance. Portuguese text threads through the flowers and latticework, words indicating the I am: te amo, te espero, ..ate que a morte nos separe. (love, waiting, 'til death do us part.) She picks a seed from a pomegranate, suggesting the movement of placing the seed in her mouth. This image evokes the myth of Persephone, who was abducted by Hades to the underworld to be his bride. Her mother, the Earth Mother Demeter, bargained with Hades for her return. Hades agreed but before sending Persephone off, he gave her pomegranate seeds to eat, thus ensuring that she would return to him in death for three months every year.
The mythic use of three appears among Amorim’s most recent works, as in Three Fish of Maria. The self-portraiture fully drives the new series, whereas the text seemed the strongest impetus for the Cartas. Amorim as Maria is the iconic Virgin Mother, but here depicted in the fullness of pregnancy. Her glassy tears recall Man Ray. Her anatomical sacred heart bursts with light, as does her stigmata, her marks of suffering. Strung up beside her are three gigantic crying fish. Three is a sacred number both in mythology and in mathematics: the triad, the trinity, the triangle. It also suggests movement beyond contradictions; the binary opposition of two is made whole in the three. In the Maria confession we find that motherhood and purity are closely associated with suffering, and the captured fish hung to die are a symbol of that suffering.
In the newer collages, within the trend that explores female iconography of motherhood, come such works as Domestika and Chop Chop, turning toward marriage and the home. Amorim poses as the quintessential 1950s housewife in a style that beckons Warhol and Pop Art, especially the elevation of advertisement in art; and drawing pointed reference to early twentieth century Russian propaganda posters. The connections being drawn between commodity and propaganda in relationship to wifehood is a very direct confession. The colors are bright and cheerful, the woman always smiles, food is served. In Domestika we find repetition in three again. In Chop Chop, being served are two anatomical hearts mimicking chicken on a platter. The perfect dish for the man in your life/better served cold in a sweet and sour reduction. Heavenly! The background design is an overlay of household slicing utensils: scissors, knives, forks. The text and design keep with Amorim’s consistent use of intricate ornamentation, whether utilizing Popism or Victorianism. The composition is clean, precise, well-balanced; even this is a type of cynicism in the context of such unnerving imagery.
Irony and cynicism are great tools for self-revelation. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Lobotomy. Transorbital Lobotomy: Have you lost your zeal for domestic work? ...Do you wish you were a more agreeable and gentle wife? The advertisement text leads to a drawing of a head and brain being pierced, which snakes to a sharp tool pointing directly at a woman’s head. Amorim poses as a demure and coquettish woman. She is placed at an inverted angle from the top of the composition. Words fall out of her head in steady streams: resentment, passion, melancholy. This piece is an adept example of Amorim’s tendency to fill all available space with ornamentation, drawing, and text; much like the collage and sculpture of Joseph Cornell. Sometimes her obsessive filling of space can seem crowded or claustrophobic, which is an extension of subject matter, as in Lobotomy, or Venus Flytrap in the Cartas series. Other times this obsessive detailing can seem pretty and feminine, as in Agatha from the Cartas which depicts a prostitute (in another layer of irony), or in the newer work, the petite tokens (8x8) entitled Three of Spades and Little Women. But Amorim never lets any of her work drown in pretty. She seems aware of the association being derogatory in masculine-dominated social perspective. Pretty is less than. So “pretty” in Amorim’s work becomes merely a tool to manipulate the delivery of her autobiographical confessions.
Implicit in the narrative of this extended series of Amorim’s work is a personal, psychological transformation. The earliest confessions are of love and disappointment in codependent relation: I am this only in relation to your that. It feels like the beginning of a journey, an acutely painful and self-preserving discovery of new terrain. But later, in the more recent collages, the power play shifts. The emergence of the use of three is a good sign, a movement closer in the direction of wholeness and acceptance, a visual and symbolic aspect of the confession/reconciliation process. These works illustrate the emergence of a more self-reliant and independent womanhood, even if still in flux. The power emanates from the female in her various guises scrutinizing herself, but it is her alone, not her in relation to another. Even the housewife imagery suggests the woman is laughing at herself and her precarious choices, instead of the more operatic yearning for rescue earlier on. And the collages continue to confess a secret history, one recovered from the heart’s basement, one to be carried forward as keepsake.

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