by Grace Linden
What makes me a woman? Is it my body, my genes, what my face looks like, what I call myself? In her paintings, Amanda Joy Calobrisi plays with the idea of contemporary womanhood and femininity. Gender, as Judith Butler illustrated, is defined and determined by a series of socio-cultural constructs. It is unfixed and fluid. For Calobrisi, to be a woman is to be both malleable and forceful.
As the starting point for her most recent series, Calobrisi looked at the anasyrma pose, or the act of lifting one’s skirt to expose the genitals. The intended effect isn’t to arouse or be erotic, but rather it is believed that the lift wards off evil and bad luck. It’s a pose seen all over Antique (prehistoric and ancient) Greek statuary, and often, these female figures raise their skirts to reveal male genitalia. Calobrisi borrowed the pose, she explains, to reimagine and repurpose it within a contemporary context in order to play with the definitions and characteristics of gender.
In Fascinum and Invidia (Anasyrma 2) (2015), two figures raise their skirts. Outfitted in jaunty floral sundresses, both women have penises; the figure on the left cradles hers in her hand, while the woman on the right stares blankly ahead. Her painterly technique underscores the figure’s fluidity. Their bodies have sharp borders, like cutouts popping out of the space, dynamic and in the throes of being. Their skin is made up of a mess of pinks and greens. Fascinum is the root of our fascinate, but in ancient Rome it was also the divine embodiment of the phallus, while Invidia, which comes from the Latin invidare meaning to see, is the sense of envy. In this painting of course, who is looking on with envy? Is it one of the figures, both given a divine phallus, or is it us, the viewer?
Other works make women powerful, crazed, possessed by the Bacchic god: Self Portrait of the Artist (how to disappear yourself) (2016) is a portrait, yes, but we can only see the artist’s hands which grip at her engorged womb. Her body is entirely wrapped in fabric, thick black stockings, a turtleneck and a pinafore dress; her face, is obscured by unruly sphere of flowers and leaves. In lifting her skirt, she reveals nothing and instead the gesture reads as a childish prank on the viewer, though her womb’s fullness indicates otherwise.
Vibrant background patterns in works like Sofia Uncloaked and Shape-Shifter Too highlight Calobrisi’s interest in decorative arts. They also put these paintings in dialogue with earlier avant-garde artists. The Shape-Shifter sits on a Mondrian inspired backdrop. The tilt of the woman’s head in Unfolding (2013) looks a bit like Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer in the way that she gazes down at us. Hints of Egon Schiele and even Renoir permeate these paintings.
On the surface, Amanda Joy Calobrisi’s paintings aren’t overtly political. As viewers, we inhabit an ambivalent space between voyeur and ally. Looking thus, can be both redemptive and imprisoning.