Amber Boardman is an American-Australian artist currently working and living in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The worldwide interest in beauty and self feeds through her artworks, and she invites an inflated sense of self through her paintings that hover between abstraction and realism. Her artworks have recently begun to examine crowds, and the role we play as local and global communities.
In this Q&A, supported by the Northern Beaches Council, we discuss the above themes and how Boardman has navigated these times.
We often see images of individuals with blown-out proportions and in the midst of a grooming routine. When did you first decide to capture ideas of beauty and self in your artwork?
My evolution as an artist began with the combination of my childhood obsessions, creating drawings and watching television. Aside from cartoons, my primary sources of inspiration came from Miss America and Miss Universe beauty pageants. I was also fascinated by television commercials that announced new breakthroughs in mascara and hair dye technologies. As I observed women who dyed, curled or straightened their hair, I was struck by the idea that whatever sort of hair people have, they seem to want it to be different. I often wondered if a perfect colour or hair texture could exist and not require its owner to make any alterations.
One of my most cherished possessions in my early years was a cardboard box I had protected by drawing a padlock and chain on its exterior. The box contained drawings of women winning beauty pageants. At eight, I wanted to be a fashion designer, and I tried to invent as many gown ideas as possible for the contestants to wear. I wanted to capture the essence of the winning moment and freeze it in time in my drawings. Spotlights at the top of the page shot bright yellow rays onto the winner. A disembodied hand on the right side of the page presented a bouquet to the newly crowned beauty queen. I remember being confused as to why the pageant winners would cry and cover their mouths when they won. My mother told me they were crying because they were happy. This incongruity intrigued me, so most of the women in my drawings had uncontrollable streams of tears formed into arcs bursting out of their eyes.
Your artworks also explore the human condition through crowd behaviour, the role of the internet on ever-changing social norms, and pop-cultural zeitgeist— how do you set out to capture these concepts?
I spend a lot of time researching internet trends and crowd behaviour on podcasts, memes and blog posts. This research, coupled with writing and sketching forms the basis of ideas that I let play out on the canvas. I’m interested in highlighting behaviours that have become normalized but start to seem strange when you look at them more closely. Examples of this abound in consumer-based trends like the lethal violence that erupts at Black Friday sales events.
Can you talk me through a couple of works you’ve recently made, and the concept behind them?
I think a lot about how we hand over so many of our decisions to algorithms. In Dating App Algorithm (2020), I wanted to show the range of people, emotions and motivations taking place in online dating apps. The swirly dotted lines in the painting are the invisible structures connecting people as they navigate the online profiles of others. Perhaps they are seeking out lifelong partners or one-night stands and everything in between.
The Internet of Vibes (2020) is a large new work I’ve just finished for ‘BODYWORK’, a three-person exhibition at Fremantle Arts Centre in Perth curated by Erin Coates. I’m very excited to be showing alongside and Tarryn Gill and Kaylene Whiskey. I’ve been imagining our unspoken communication and the “vibes” we give off as a kind of “internet”.
The artworks seem to hover between the space between abstraction and realism, is there a theory behind this approach? How do you decide on the compositions of your paintings with often quite vivid and jarring colours?
My colour palette involves fleshy tones because all of my works relate to the body in some way. I want the compositions and the perspective in the works to be a bit off-kilter. For me, it’s important for a painting to be a painting and not a replica of a photograph. This is a medium that allows for whatever can be imagined to be created. This isn’t true for other media – sculpture is bound to laws of gravity, photographs are bound to moments that exist in time and space.
When I migrated to Australia from NYC in 2012, I was surprised by the popularity of photorealism in Australian painting. Perhaps this is because of the history of portrait-based art prizes. I think photorealism is certainly a difficult skill to master, but It doesn’t interest me as a way of working, nor does pure abstraction. I’m interested in multiple layers of meaning a painting could possibly communicate and try to use them all. I work with four basic layers of meaning:
1) Abstraction – communicates on the level of the elements of design: colour, line, shape, etc.
2) Representation – allegory that points to what we have seen before and adds meaning to that.
3) Narrative takes the recognition from representation and adds elements that tell a story. This can be facilitated by titles.
4) Exhibition/body of work – I want the sum of the works to speak to each other in a way that increases the narrative.
What effect did the move to Northern Beaches, Sydney have on your practice? I wonder whether your view on the ideals of beauty or human attitudes has changed?
My first studio in Sydney was a 3 x 3-meter space in Dee Why. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know if any other artists were around. Having the pressures of the New York art world off my back gave me the space to realize I wanted to completely change the kind of work I was making from hand-painted animated films and public art installations, to oil on canvas paintings about socials norms.
I kept thinking about the differences between life in New York versus life on the Northern Beaches. My life now has a lot more space in it. I made a few paintings about my favourite places to go near my studio in Brooklyn vs my favourite spots near my studio in Sydney. In NY, my studio mates and I would hang out at a pizza place called Roberta’s. It’s great pizza, don’t get me wrong, but it’s no Sydney rock pool. I still find them to be magical places to swim.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on behaviour during COVID, and whether this has influenced your career? How would your characters look during these times?
Many of my paintings about crowds and street protests have taken on a different meaning since social distancing, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Much of my work over the last few years has concerned boundaries and relationships between people; these works also look different now. I think COVID brings out a lot of dormant emotions in people: fear, anxiety, kindness, helpfulness, rebelliousness. I’d like to capture some of this in future paintings, but I feel that I need more distance from it first.
‘Bodywork’ at Fremantle Arts Centre, Perth
26 September to 22 November 2020
‘This is America’ at UK Art Museum, Lexington, Kentucky, Unites States
6 October 2020 to 13 February 2021
3:33 Projects’ exhibition at Clayton Utz, Sydney
11 March 2020 to 21 February 2021
‘Out of Touch’ at Subliminal Projects, Los Angeles, United States
10 July 2020 to 10 July 2021
‘Decision Fatigue’ at Chalk Horse, Sydney
28 January to 27 February 2021
This article is proudly sponsored by the Northern Beaches Council as part of the series ‘Documenting Art in the Time of Corona.’ More information about the project can be found here: www.emmakatewilson.net/documenting-art-in-the-time-of-corona/