Female Bonding: an Interview with Amanda Joy Calobrisi

Amanda Joy Calobrisi,  Unfolding , oil and flashe on canvas, 38 x 32 inches

Amanda Joy Calobrisi, Unfolding, oil and flashe on canvas, 38 x 32 inches

By Scott Gleeson

Diverse inspirations and historical source images converge in the art of Chicago painter Amanda Joy Calobrisi. The artist's canvases depict private worlds in which figures engage in private moments of introspection and self-examination. Bright color and expressionistic brushwork imbue each painting with enhanced psychological force, empowering the viewer to imagine themselves in the role of the sitter. A consummate researcher with a passion for Japanese culture, Calobrisi gathers content for her art from her extensive travels, foreign landscapes, ancient Mediterranean sculpture, plein air studies, French erotic photography, textiles, and European avant-garde painting. Contemporary gender politics, though present in the work, form only one possible point of access to these often ambiguous and enigmatic images in which figures assume variations of the classical anasyrma pose of lifting one's skirts to reveal the genitalia. Peripheral Vision discusses with the artist the significance of travel to the development of her art and traces the artist's processes to the source images which lend inspiration to her practice.

Tell us about your current body of work? 

I have most recently been working on a series of paintings made from photos taken in the 1920-30’s by an amateur photographer whose nom de guerre was Monsieur X. The looking that goes into the painting of these photos is a form of camaraderie with the posing women. Through painting I attempt to understand and try on the feelings of these liberated anonymous women to reveal their sense of humor, frank sensuality, prowess, and courage. I have little interest in exactitude. Instead, the photos are starting points, departures into paint. Her expressions, the eye behind the lens, and my reading of the body language mutate on the canvas, allowing painterly discoveries. The heightened color, patterns, and textures are an attempt to create a commotion that works against the stillness inherent in painting. The figures take on a new life in paint celebrating physical intimacy with their own bodies. The man behind the camera is gone. The revealed vulva now represents the figures interiority, functioning as a symbol of introspection and the complexity of her private life.


Female Bonding , gouache and flashe on canvas, 16 x 12 inches, 2014

Female Bonding, gouache and flashe on canvas, 16 x 12 inches, 2014

What work in your portfolio do you consider your most pivotal accomplishment and why?

Female Bonding is a painting of an original source image by the French photographer known as Monsieur X. This work was a pivotal piece in that the painting of this found photo urged me to do more research. It led to discovering that the ancient gesture of lifting of skirts, or anasyrma, was a powerful gesture, apotropaic and fructifying, not a form of exhibitionism as we now read it. Over time the gesture of lifting one’s skirt became a powerful signifier in my work for self-reflection, introspection, and self-love.


Did you know you wanted to be an artist from an early age?

From an early age, I became interested in observing body language and human gesture, which had a direct impact on my figurative paintings later in life. Being a cautious but curious child, cursed by shyness, body language was (and still is) my primary form of communication. Observing the adults was preferable to playing with the kids. I tried to figure out how expressions, gestures, and stances connected to verbal language. The body more often than not seemed to defy the words, undo them and render them useless. I think my interest in these contradictions led me to visual art and figure painting in particular. Through the process of looking at the photograph and thinking it through the painting, I ponder the appearances of things, give them form and still the disappearing revelations.


Describe a work of contemporary art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

Last year, I encountered Kerry James Marshall’s Black Painting (2003) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I bought a membership that month because I knew that I would visit this show at least a half a dozen times. This particular painting is black on black on black: acrylic paint on black fiberglass. You will never think of the hue the same way again after observing Marshall's paintings. The virtuosity of the artist’s use of black paint in unimaginable intensities, luminosities and temperatures is stunning. My beginning painting students learn to mix a black hue solely from their primary colors, they think the feat impossible at first or just simply too tedious. But when these mixed chromatic blacks sit next to tubed black paint the visual magic begins to make itself clear. The black spectrum of color, red/black, yellow/black, green/black, blue/black, purple/black in this painting is gorgeously subtle at first. With time, forthright.

The time required to enter and begin to absorb this painting is what moves me. Each time I stood in front of that bed in someone’s darkened bedroom I become a ghost. I lingered a few feet from a bed taking care not to disturb, squinting and waiting for the darkness to dissipate. Neither moving physically closer nor backing up clears the darkness. It is a room without light. The room is dark, so dark it makes me feel like a stranger in place I shouldn’t be. My curiosity and scanning of the picture feels like an intrusion. First, I see her shoes, than I see the woman sitting with her back to me on the bed. The painting makes me look hard and close.  Is someone in the bed next to her? The difficulty of looking is somehow more exciting than frustrating. Seeing is something I thought I did well. The experience is a daily one at home but there I have the ability to use my sense of touch to get through it. Find the light switch or walk carefully to bed. But here I am without hands, without light switch, and eyes that fail me. This room has the sensation of being both empty and occupied. The scene is shrouded in a darkness that is somehow not gentle. The museum’s wall text fills in the details of why mournful feelings surfaced while experiencing this painting. The figure barely perceptible on the far end of the bed is activist Fred Hampton. The bedroom is now occupied by two. “Black Painting” is KJM’s imagining of the bedroom as it should be, a place for intimacy and rest. Fred Hampton was shot and killed in his bed by the Chicago Police department on December 4th, 1969.


Echo and Narcissus (Pithos and Amphora),  acrylic on linen, 14 x 12 inches, 2016

Echo and Narcissus (Pithos and Amphora), acrylic on linen, 14 x 12 inches, 2016

Your work adopts various 19th and early 20th century avant-garde aesthetics. Is there a particular modern artist who has influenced your image making practice?

While flipping through pages of used books in the art section at Harvard Square Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I stumbled on a drawing by Egon Schiele. The drawing was printed cheaply in black and white, giving it the look of a Xerox copy. Of course, seeing the real thing, executed in graphite and gouache on paper, was decidedly more exquisite, but seeing this shoddy version called to me in its familiarity and reeled me in. At the time, I was working through self-portraiture and using photo based printmaking techniques. Working at Kinko’s allowed me access to computers and Photoshop, as well as a way to experiment with making images with the copiers and printers.

The Schiele drawing was of a young woman curled in on herself, all legs, with black and white striped stockings. I looked down at myself through the space between me and the book, spying my own black and white striped thighs peeking out from under a vintage velvet shift dress, that I wish I still had. My eyes moved between the drawing and the foreshortened view of my own body descending below the book. I suddenly had the feeling that I had been on this earth longer than a mere 19 years. The German word Einfühlung was first introduced by Robert Vischer in 1873 as an aesthetic term, a way of feeling oneself into a work of art. As I dug deeper into Schiele’s oeuvre I continued bumping into myself and disappearing into the women and men who occupied the drawings. Encountering the passionate and prolific Schiele in my formative years as a young artist set the bar high. His work urged me to make pictures that one could step into psychologically, to be sincere and unrestrained, even if that led to something strange or uncouth.


What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music in the studio?

I always listen to music in the studio, including Mazzy Star, The Cure, Mick Harvey, Rowland S. Howard, Anita Lane, PJ Harvey, The Knife, Bowie, Momus, Angel Olsen, Chinawoman, Robyn Hitchcock, and Slowdive. I need an Ipod with more space but all my money is spent on supplies, so I guess it is CD’s forever for me.  


Tell us about a museum exhibition or travel experience that has influenced your practice in a significant way.

The films of Seijun Suzuki, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu occupy a large part of the “Japan” in my mind. I’ve looked to kimono patterns and woodblock prints, to guide color and compositional choices in my own work. I find myself returning to Japan again and again though literature, film, fine art and textiles to find beauty swathed in luminous color. These encounters with Japan have fed my own painted worlds their heightened colors, loose patterns, and tangled marks. Two years ago I participated in my first artist residency. I traveled to Gunma prefecture for 6 weeks to paint en plein air. Travel shakes up all of my senses.  Before this experience I had traveled to shake off the dust and take in new information, but never staying in any one place long enough build a body of work. Travel has primarily been a time to make lists, visit museums and collect books and objects, only filing ideas away to act upon them on my return home.

Broken Blossom , oil on canvas, 36.5 x 36.5, 2010

Broken Blossom, oil on canvas, 36.5 x 36.5, 2010

During my residency I formed an intimate connection to the mountainous landscape of Onishi. I was a city girl surrounded by grasses, insects, and snakes contending with the heat and rain. Through the project I formed a deeper knowledge and appreciation for the tradition of painting out of doors. I felt I better understood Egon Shiele’s Dead City landscapes of Krumau and Susanna Coffey’s Night Paintings when I waited until night to sit and paint from my room looking at the mountains from my window. And, of course, on those hottest days, feeling the why of Van Gogh’s manic translations in oil paint of his vibrating surroundings. When I returned home to Chicago, foliage and natural forms began to invade my compositions creating spaces that hovered between boudoir and landscape. I also came home with an appreciation for my indoor studio that was free of mosquitos.

In Where The Stress Falls critic Susan Sontag observes:

A painter needs to travel. You need a separation from home and then to return home to consider what you have stirred up. [...] Travel the impression that one has ventured outside oneself can be used as a filter. It organizes the desire to paint. It gives it a rhythm and the right kind of delay.  

Travel shifts the mind in ways you cannot predict. One’s sense of the vastness of the world becomes tangible and overwhelming.


Master of Fine Arts degree programs, unlike other graduate degree programs in the humanities, are notoriously underfunded, requiring aspiring artists to acquire student debt. What is your perspective on the issue of student debt, and how has the acquisition of debt affected your vision of your future practice?

Unfortunately, the problem is not simply within the pursuit of a Master of Fine Arts degree. The whole higher education system in the United States is fundamentally flawed. As a first generation college student coming out of a single parent household, I made financial decisions that I will have to contend with until the grave. Hopefully it ends there! MFA programs are also notoriously expensive. Which is especially discouraging since monetary earnings in the field after graduate school often feel akin to winning the lottery, as is landing a coveted tenure track teaching position. I don’t regret my education, but there has to be a better way.


What is next for you in your art practice?

During the summer of 2017, I will participate in Yamanashi AIRY residency in Kofu, Japan. I will begin a series of paintings and drawings inspired by the poetry of Akiko Yosano. I will also visit biographical sites, beginning in her birthplace, Sakai. Akiko Yosano was a pioneer in the feminist movement in Japan at the turn of the last century. Her poems bridge the century between us. Through reading the poems she has become both heroine and friend. I find echoes in our work - in our explorations of womanhood and our female figures that function as autobiographical portraits and semi-divine archetypes. Our respective bodies of work ponder love, sexuality, gender and the ache of loneliness. I hope to further unfold her poetry by visually entwining it with my painted imagery.