Amber Robles-Gordon‘s work is deeply personal. Her mixed media paintings and sculptures draw upon her journey through motherhood, genealogy, healing, and being alive today. They represent her technical and scholarly growth as an artist, and are inspired by her professional development in the Washington, DC area. A recent graduate of the Howard University MFA Program (2010), Robles-Gordon is a board member of Black Artists of DC (BADC), and takes part in a diverse and multigenerational arts community. She is also an arts advocate who participates in several cross-cultural and cross-town initiatives that characterize Washington, DC‘s history of individual and grassroots organizational support for artists. Robles-Gordon has expressed that this rigorous and nurturing technical and conceptual dialogue has enriched her artistic process and her life; it has affected her approach to materials, techniques, and her vision as an artist. She notes the influence of many artists who have inspired her to see art-making as a profound engagement with oneself and the world.
Her two- and three-dimensional pieces fit within an expansive notion of painting and sculptural form. She uses wood or painted, stretched canvas, or chicken wire to support an accumulation of media in low- or sharp-relief. These assemblages require a close look to interpret their individual parts. Collectively, each object contributes to the palpable energy of the overall piece—hinting at their previous functions and the ?lives? of their former owners—configured by the artist‘s hands.
Robles-Gordon gathers and reshapes the sweet glitter juju of life into her work. Individual moments, personal vignettes, and more universal themes are equally woven into it. She examines spirituality, the phenomena of childbirth and motherhood, and the assignment of value to every little thing. She considers the blessings and burdens of femininity, and what it means to be a woman. She recycles fragments of garments, handbags, and accessories to engage the ways that these vanity objects—often used to define beauty—are also traps. She explores various metaphysical systems as a source of inspiration after an accident gave her the opportunity to test her faith and healing ability. Glitter-coated streams of paint add sparkle and shine to a range of discarded or thrifted objects. She breaks them down and reassembles them into collaged arrangements that are influenced by artists such as Romare Bearden, James Brown, Francine Haskins, Frida Kahlo, Georges Seurat, Frank Smith, and Alma Thomas. Robles-Gordon fuses varied influences into compositions that balance blank space, color, and hyper-materiality. She creates a subtle tension, and the possibility of opposing readings in her placement of assemblaged elements amidst dripping paint—which may represent the lyrical expression of painful experiences. These works belong to the series Milked, and simulate the outstretched wings of birds-in-flight against blue or yellow skies, butterflies, or the seductive curves of women‘s undergarments. Her affinity for lacy details, gloves, doilies, slips, and purses consist of a range of past and present accessories and small objects of home décor. She chooses from things—her own and others‘—to pull apart and reform; to give new life, and to scatter between various works like a sprinkling of fairy dust.
She plays with notions of masculine and feminine energy (as objectified) to address distinctions between the admiration of beauty, and its ethereal source or essence. Found dragonflies, dolls, deconstructed fan parts, remote controls, billiard balls, trophies, curling irons, hood ornaments, handles, and sparkly red children‘s maryjanes refer to male/female dynamics, and popular culture references, like fairy princesses, Oz, and what it may mean to be “?behind the eight ball.”
Robles-Gordon‘s collage sensibilities were influenced by artist-activist Romare Bearden (1901– 1988). Bearden‘s prolific work in collage shaped a visual narrative style that conveyed a palpable sense of 20th-century black life in America. Robles-Gordon states: I identify with Bearden‘s collages because I employ similar techniques and processes of cutting, pasting, reconstructing forms, faces, and concepts from photographs, magazines, and other paper sources to convey a message. I interpret his method and collages as a form of visual journaling. Through making collages, I have established a relationship between texture, symmetry, harmony, and compositional balance.
Inspired by Mexican surrealist, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Robles-Gordon considers Kahlo‘s ability to overcome tragedy, illness, and grief as an expression of her strength, and its role as a source for her paintings. As one of the best-known women artists of the early 20th-century, Kahlo used life‘s obstacles as a way to hone and articulate her artistic voice:
Kahlo was a master at rendering her dreams, pain, and innermost thoughts and feelings. I am inspired by her personal connection to her art and its role within her life. Further, her artistic treatment of women and the depiction of her traumatic life have influenced my desire to create works reflective of my experiences as a woman.
In Bearden and Kahlo, Robles-Gordon discovered the arts to be a meaningful ways to convey personal narratives and relevant sociopolitical issues. She admires each artist‘s work as an embodiment of cultural pride, and as a means to stake a position on identity, subjugation, and giving voice to the voiceless. By combining personal elements with timeless and universal themes, Robles-Gordon uses collage, and non-traditional painterly devices to examine contemporary social issues: accumulation and waste, beauty and femininity, motherhood, spirituality, and the nonsensical or unexplainable juxtapositions that characterize daily existence.
In the work of pioneering abstract painter Alma Thomas (1891-1978), Robles-Gordon reflects upon Thomas‘s interpretation of primary color schemes, geometry, and composition. From French artist Georges Seurat‘s (1859-1891), she learned about the process of optical color mixing. Robles-Gordon states:
Thomas left small spaces of white canvas in between her brush strokes, creating the appearance of mosaics or stained glasswork.... [By studying this,] I began to evaluate the value, purpose, and aesthetic aspects of my art.... [Seurat] used white space to enhance the perception of color. He created a technique called ‘pointillism,‘ in which an image is rendered using tiny dots of primary and secondary colors. When the image is viewed from afar, the eye fuses the colors and creates intermediate colors.
She applied these concepts of color and technique to a body of untitled works in the series, Identification of the Matrix Grid. Begun in 2004, these pieces evolved from an artistic inquiry that used grid structures to create multi-colored layered matrices based on squares or rectangles. She cites Thomas and Seurat as sources for her grids: In my early works, I used torn, colored paper to create figurative paper mosaic compositions. Ripping the paper revealed its white fiber pulp, and provided areas of white space between each portion of color. Many of my paper mosaics appear from afar to look like Thomas‘s paintings until you come closer and see the texture of overlapping paper. The manner in which Thomas and Seurat used color and white space has influenced the way I visually perceive color and has informed my placement of color in the majority of these works.
As a member of BADC, Robles-Gordon has positioned her art as a part of an artist community that values African-inspired techniques and philosophies as a tool for exploring personal and artistic awareness. Her series, Cosmic Black, was created for the 2009 BADC exhibition, The Black Exhibit. Like the 20th-century exhibitions devoted to the color black as an expression of the sociopolitical issues associated with blackness, the focus of this show was to reinforce principles such as ?black is beautiful? and the positive attributes of the color.
Within BADC, fiber and textile artist James Brown, and mixed-media artist Francine Haskins have inspired Robles-Gordon‘s professional development. In Brown and Haskins, Robles- Gordon appreciates how each artist has contributed to an expansive understanding of the possibilities of textiles, fiber arts, and found objects in her own work. She also sees the work of artist, professor, and AfriCOBRA member, Frank Smith as an inspiration for developing mixed- media canvases and sculptures that combine sewing and painting. The physicality of Smith‘s work comes from layers of painted, cross-hatched squares, stamps, or other materials featured in kinetic arrangements. The wall-mounted draped textiles in her series, Heal Thyself Series, pay homage to Smith‘s quilted paintings, his use of space and brilliant palettes. Robles-Gordon says of these three artists:
In their own individual styles and techniques, Brown, Haskins, and Smith create two- dimensional figurative and abstracted compositions that appear to have varying planes of visual movement and rhythm that document, explore, and celebrate African and African American history and culture. Through exposure to their works and my relationships with Brown, Haskins, and Smith, they have supported and challenged me to continue my exploration of textiles, cloth, and sewing and have strongly encouraged my desire to go beyond the conventional practice of presenting works in frames.
In Robles-Gordon‘s recent work, familiar elements—straps, curling irons, gloves, shoes, dragonflies, and fans—take on new meanings and forms on her characteristically canvas, chicken wire, or wooden supports. The compositional possibilities are as limitless as her stockpile of materials and their conceptual associations. As the work moves this direction, her structural sensibilities—that once relied on grids and matrices—are being transformed into less regimented, more three-dimensional, and visually-interactive compositions. She states:
Though the matrix is still at the core of most of my compositions, the works are no longer defined by a grid format or flat surface. Taking away the boundaries of traditional framing encouraged me to allow the materials, colors, and energy to hang, flow, and ?leap off? of flat canvas, which ultimately leads to the shift from two-dimensional to three-dimensional works.
These developing concepts are best revealed in the Heal Thyself Series, the Chicken Wire Series, and At the Altar. Heal Thyself consists of wall hangings made from textiles and other media mounted on canvas. The Chicken Wire Series is comprised of mixed media works woven through and sculpted around a chicken wire base. At the Altar is composed of folded and draped canvases that are brightly painted and adorned with an array of found objects from plastic fruit to things associated with childbirth and maternity.
Tosha Grantham is an artist, writer, and independent curator. She is completing a PhD in African Diaspora Art History at the University of Maryland College Park.
Amber Robles-Gordon is a mixed media artist who lives in Washington, DC.