Acclaimed New York-based Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh’s collective practice has spanned approximately two decades and their latest offering ‘Love is a Difficult Blue’ is the duo’s first ‘solo’ show at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town.
The titular colour reference might point to its pornographic source material but is originally drawn from the lyrics of french country pop song L’amour à la machine by Alain Souchon. In the music video, Souchon serenades a Hepburn-lookalike, lamenting the mess of their relationship, hoping a machine wash can bring back the original colours of their love.
The song evinces the colour wheel palette of the show. A mirage of chalky yellows, hibiscus pinks and bleached blues. In Esther, Queen of Persia, a halo of tropical flowers blooms around the head of a doll-like pin-up. She smoulders at you from behind an outlined auburn bang, her lips parted seductively.
Amer and Farkhondeh have delighted in the stylistic devices of erotica, utilizing the most generic pin-ups in the most clichéd poses. In so doing these images veer towards cringe-worthiness. Esther is an approximation of a sexual fantasy but (aside from a sliver of exposed breast) she could be Barbie in Hawaii or a Mariah Carey album cover.
It is not simply the content that creates a tension between beauty and kitchness, it is also the execution. Esther is a bit badly drawn. Not enjoyably Henry Darger badly drawn. Uncannily off the mark. This impacts the viewer’s immersion in the sexual content of the work. Esther and her ilk, although lip-lined, cat-eyed, primped and perky, are too naïvely rendered to tantalize.
The work’s namesake, the Queen of Persia in 479 BC, was a strong female biblical character who interceded on behalf of captive and embattled Jews. Other titles also incorporate names, such as those of Madame Bovary, Madame de Pompadour, Tallulah Black (a strong female character from the DC comic universe) and Olympia (the strong female character from that Manet painting). Referencing a motley feminist ensemble isn’t, however, enough to infuse these works with social commentary. That Amer & Farkhondeh aren’t presenting these porno babes as morally reprehensible shouldn’t pass for ‘doggedly question[ing] the status of women in society and in art history.’ It may pass the Bechdel test, but then so does a lot of lesbian porn.
Mutual Consent, Courtisanne and House of Lust manage to convey a beauty and eroticism absent in many of the other works. House of Lust shows line drawings of two women engaged in a scopophilic french kiss. Their tonguing profiles are framed by thick red lines. In the foreground floats a collection of Matisse-esque sprigs and yellow grids. Punchy primary colours and idyllic motifs make for an iconic image. The work is unafraid of being pretty and aims for paradisiacal anti-anti-aestheticism.
Yet, even these do not rank among Amer & Farkhondeh’s best work. Their monographs on the Goodman’s bookshelves attest to more subtle, suggestive, and compelling exhibitions.
Amer’s work especially is a staple in the contemporary canon of feminist art. Her earlier offerings include canvases crawling with tangled skeins of multicoloured threads. Each length traceable to the outlines of harems of seductresses. The strength of these works is their partially obscured patterning; their similarity to – and undermining of – masculine pop art tropes and the way their subjects retain power to command the gaze while simultaneously being multiplied and commodified.
‘Love is a Difficult Blue’ still makes use of the medium of textile, with its connotations of domesticity and housewifery, but the stitching is as clear as pen line and lacks the beguiling ambiguity or repetitive scale of earlier work.
As well as the twenty one disenchanting temptresses on paper, canvas and Pellon, ‘Love is a Difficult Blue’ includes two video works; Higher Me from 2014 and An Indigestible Dessert from 2007.
The first section of An Indigestible Dessert entails the POV sculpting of a fondant Tony Blair head. Thereafter, Blair’s head is placed on a boxy body next to a fondant George Bush. The pair are taken to a party where women with grayscale masks of Blair and Bush shake hands with party-goers. Masked Blair and Bush kneel before cake Blair and Bush and recite insincere messages of condolences in chipmunk-y helium-altered voices. A alien mask makes an appearance. Then Amer bashes the faces with a rubber mallet and the party feeds on the red velvet carcasses.
Altogether it is a grainy mashup of cake boss and an amature horror film. The music is incongruous, being better suited to a children’s show like Noddy or Postman Pat. The work is crudely produced and unsubtle in its message – a message that would have been superfluously superabundant even around its time of inception when both men had already taken four years of heat over their ill-conceived war in Iraq. Espousing a fashionable opinion even now, the video is necessarily overshadowed by contemporary political concerns and as such it’s inclusion seems last minute and off message.
This show lacks the potency of much of Ghada Amer & Reza Farkhondeh’s earlier output. Using the same formula the duo have previously created more beautiful and more rigorously conceptual work.