Amel Janae's Immersive Work Obscures — And Reveals — The Body
San Diego artist Amel Janae's solo exhibition, on view through Feb. 21 at Swish Projects, is intensely focused on the human form, and also a study in obscurity.
Janae's work in the past has featured close-up junctions and angles of limbs painted directly on mirrors. She first began the mirror format in 2016 as a way of implicating the viewer, literally, in self-reflection.
Her latest exhibition, "Like Honey," takes a new approach. It's not so much a divergence from the mirror paintings, but an expansion. Janae printed photographs of limbs directly onto huge rectangles of sheer chiffon cloth, suspending them from the gallery ceiling.
The panels, nine in total, are each a slightly different shade of fabric, with the image zoomed in.
"I'm really very interested in ambiguity and trying to figure out what you're looking at. You can tell that it is the body, but we don't really know exactly which part," Janae said.
Janae pointed out arms, shoulders, the slope of a shoulder blade as it meets the arm, and in some cases said there are multiple humans in a frame — but the identifications sometimes seem unbelievable or impossible. While there's an undeniable sensuality to the pieces, the work seems to deal in geometry and light as much as in human physiology.
The project began as reference photos for potential future paintings. She used a few models for the shoot, and admitted that she's worked with the zoomed in photos for so long that she can no longer distinguish which model is on each piece of cloth. And while each of the nine panels is an individual picture, there's a layering effect that pairs with other panels seen through and around it.
There's also a surprising element of motion. What is seen through the sheer fabric of each panel changes as a viewer moves through the installation, and the bodies seem to move. Each panel is informed by the panels around it, and by the orientation of anyone in the room.
"I also noticed that there's almost an infinity feel to it, like how they kind of cascade," Janae said.
The specifics in Janae's work are ambiguous, but there's clarity in whose bodies count. Zoomed in, size and gender are unrecognizable, and Janae prioritizes using models that represent all bodies and races. And with the immersive nature of the installation, how those bodies are represented is informed by the viewer — whether with the see-through cloth or with her other mirror pieces.
"Representation is the main thing in my work," Janae said. "I want everyone to feel represented in some way, and how they're represented is kind of in the eye of whoever was looking at it."
Creating art during the pandemic hasn't felt much different for Janae, though a newly acquired interest in sewing triggered the fabric purchase that sparked this project. And there's an unexpected upside in the gallery space: quiet.
"I think this was a nice departure," Janae said of the COVID-safe solo appointment viewings. "This work should be seen with an empty setting."
The exhibition is on view by appointment now through Feb. 21, with reservations booked online. Later this year, Janae will also show work at Hill Street Country Club.