Debora + Jason Bernagozzi
Amber Boardman, photo: Anne Peeters
Real Estate Religion
Dialogue with Amber Boardman and Lauren K. Watel
Amber Boardman, Real Estate Religion, 2022, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches, photo: Felicity Jenkins
To enter the world of Amber Boardman’s “Real Estate Religion” is to encounter the fundamental human impulse to create order out of chaos, as well as the inevitable failure of these efforts. The show’s title painting illustrates most overtly the motifs and formal elements that inform the work as a whole. Boardman creates a hybrid interior whose lower half resembles a kitchen, with all the appropriate appliances and accoutrements, while the canvas’s center and upper half are dominated by the outsized Gothic pointed-arch window and soaring vaulted ceilings of a cathedral. Intense light pouring in from the window evokes holiness as depicted in traditional religious paintings, though in this case the rays of light usually haloing a saint instead emanate from the sink’s curved faucet. Combining the aesthetics of a 17th-century Dutch painter like Pieter Saenredam and an upscale Airbnb photo, the image caricatures the capitalist worship of private ownership, in which the acquisition of property-as-sanctuary is the divine right of a privileged minority who can afford it.
Within Boardman’s artistic vision, real estate religion references not only a reverence for property but also, more generally, a devotion to proprietary space or capacity. The title painting showcases a variety of surfaces, vessels and furnishings meant for the organization and display of objects, elements and spaces. Boardman here taps into the all-too-human impulse to control and contain an everchanging, disorderly environment by any means necessary. The countertops, cabinetry, shelving, open refrigerator and kitchen island of Real Estate Religion serve as holders for the many objects involved in food preparation, all of which glow in the kitchen’s heavenly light. A single place setting and glass of wine, two eggs frying in a pan, and a cutting board with two pieces of bread sliced from a loaf point to an absent organizer, who will soon be consuming the sacred meal-for-one being prepared. The large cathedral-style window emphasizes the room’s spiritual symbolism as organizing space, since its panes are dark, as if it’s night outside, or as if there is no outside at all. The dramatic light, therefore, seems to come not through the window but from the window, as if the room itself were its source. Since architecture evolved to offer a haven against the wildness of nature, Boardman’s kitchen depicts a human-made Eden, in which the garden itself is banished, a pair of small ceramic planters under the window and the leaves of a potted plant behind the refrigerator door the only evidence of the natural world outside.
At the same time that the painting reifies the compulsion to organize and contain, it also depicts the fruitlessness of those attempts at containment. The overall composition is rife with spatial anomalies, disjunctures, leakages and spillages. On closer inspection, the orderly assemblage of objects begins to fall apart, the items contained forever rebelling against the restraints meant to hold them. Melting wax spills over candlesticks, water drips from the haloed faucet and overflows the sink, the amorphous contents of the refrigerator seem to drip and smear, egg white overruns the side of the pan, which itself appears to be dissolving. A swathe of reddish fabric oozes out from under a candlestick and over the side of the microwave, which functions as the kitchen’s “altar.” The luminous white countertops slope toward the bottom of the frame; consequently, the objects rest uneasily on their surfaces, as though they could slide off at any moment. The light-colored top of the kitchen island also acts as a canvas within the canvas, on which the artist can explore painting itself as a medium. Juxtaposed with impressionistically painted-in stovetop heating elements, the sliced bread and glass of wine blend cartoony rendering with the detail and shadowing of a Renaissance still life.
Just as in Real Estate Religion, all the paintings, one way or another, portray endeavors at containment and their futility. Boardman obsessively fills her canvases with tabletops, dishes and pitchers and jugs, shelving, and all manner of organizational receptacles. She organizes her interiors and even her exteriors with features of spatial demarcation: wainscoting, floorboards, windows, doors, fences, walls, pools, stairs and ladders. At the same time, whatever elements are meant to be confined by these assorted forms of restraint invariably seem to be rioting against their confinement, dripping, melting, overflowing, sliding off, floating, or distorting into abstraction. Stairs and ladders lead nowhere or disintegrate. In paintings like Apartment Therapy objects in brightly hued clusters sit precariously on tabletops, blend into the background, defy perspective and gravity, and blur into amorphous shapes. Water escapes from the pools meant to contain it in Knock Down Rebuild. Reckless Vessels shows paint rising up as if animated, spilling, pouring and splashing out of its containers, even toppling them off their shelves.
Smaller paintings, such as Bag of Bags and Storage Unit, zero in on specific organizing systems. Each assortment of objects is bordered by or hovers over subtle frame-like elements, as if the act of organizing were akin to creating a painting. Indeed, one might say that these images implicitly compare the endlessly futile efforts to organize the chaos of human existence with the perennially imperfect attempts of the artist to capture reality in paint. Defying linear perspective, the items meant for organization seem to float on the surface of the canvas, rather than “inside” the drawer or bag or closet. Objects are rendered in brushwork so painterly that they veer from loose representation into abstraction—file folders as stripes and squiggles on a bright orange background; a plastic bag filled with bags as ghostly, jellyfish-like blob floating in moss-green and brown space; junk in a drawer as sketchy linework, smears and smudges, and colorful forms suggestive of household implements; a storage unit as compositional study of contrasting geometries, patterned verticals and horizontals, and primary colors with varied texturings and shadings.
Boardman’s universe of vigorous organizing and riotous objects leaves little room for the natural world. Interiors have either no windows, opaque windows or few windows, through which one can see only vague outlines. Cut flowers in a vase and potted plants constitute the few traces of life indoors, whereas in the exteriors one gets glimpses of greenery bordered by fences and walls. Humans are almost entirely absent. God’s Printer, the show’s single landscape featuring undomesticated greenery, imagines God as the divine organizer, with His latter-day organizational tool, a giant printer, spitting out the images that will form heaven and earth.
In this postmodern take on the biblical creation story, Boardman likens the act of divine creation to the work of the painter, whose very practice involves organizing reality onto the real estate of the canvas with nothing more than paint and a brush. Along with the show’s other paintings, this work both playfully and forcefully reminds us of the glorious folly of all our organizational endeavors against the larger tumultuous forces—of global capitalism, class and racial inequities, climate change, rising authoritarianism and the simple but elemental passage of time.
Lauren K. Watel
Amber Boardman, Knock Down Rebuild, 2022, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, photo: Felicity Jenkins
Lauren K. Watel: What inspired you to paint a show based on the ideas of “real estate” and “religion?”
Amber Boardman: For each show I look at what’s happening around me to find out what people are talking about, what they’re doing on the Internet. I synthesize the trends and desires I’ve discovered and try to paint them. Therefore, each show is like a little anthropological essay, and each painting is a little essay as well.
For this show, it was something I was noticing during the pandemic. There was this insane real estate boom, and everyone was talking about real estate; even my partner and I were talking about real estate. Obviously, the pandemic freaked everyone out, and people were making huge changes in where they were going to live and how they were going to live. And there were all these channels and all this media about organizing and maximizing space. KonMari (the tidying empire of Japanese professional organizer Marie Kondo), for example. It felt like a religion to me, and it still does. A lot of people adhere to it like a religion, even if they don’t consider it to be one. Or maybe it’s more that Capitalism is the biggest religion right now: people’s signaling through the way they live, the stuff they have, the illusion of safety. The idea being, if you can own a house, you’re safe, as if you’re going to be saved by the things you can surround yourself with and the things you can buy.
Amber Boardman, Storage Unit, 2022, oil on panel, 24 x 24 inches, photo: Felicity Jenkins
LW: Many of the images, Storage Unit for example, feature a framing device within the painting. Do you consider the canvas a sort of storage unit for paint?
AB: Yes, that’s totally what I was thinking about in paintings like Storage Unit and God’s Printer. The work is riffing on the theme of real estate—our stuff, our reverence for stuff—but then there’s this undercurrent. I’m asking myself: What is my job? My job is to make paintings. What does that mean? I’m just putting things away, like on shelves, as in Reckless Vessels, or putting things in a box or in a space. I’m making decisions about how to organize and how to put things away. That’s always how I think about painting.
LW: All the work has very painterly kinds of marks: textured brush strokes, drips, splashes, smudges and blobs. In Reckless Vessels, it even feels as though the paint is in rebellion. Do you ever think of paint as the mess you’re cleaning up by organizing it into images on a canvas?
AB: Yes, paint is the mess I’m trying to organize. But Reckless Vessels also depicts how I feel when I make paintings. I’m always negotiating a constant back and forth between loose and tight. I want to stay loose and wild, with crazy, confident marks, but as the painting develops, it’s hard not to get tighter and try to define things. Then I get tired of that, and I want to go loose again. There’s this push and pull between organizing and trying to break it all apart, and I’m trying to find a balance between the two.
Amber Boardman, Reckless Vessels 2022, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, photo: Felicity Jenkins
LW: Space is very strange in these paintings. There are a lot of hovering objects and weird perspective. It’s as if the canvas is a battleground between order and disorder, even spatially. How do you envision space in these paintings?
AB: I want to represent something concrete. I’m not just interested in pure abstraction. I want there to be recognizable objects. But if the image is too perfectly real, I find it really boring. When things are too perfectly real in a painting, it almost seems more fake, somehow. In painting prior to the Renaissance, artists hadn’t really figured out how perspective works. Some of those paintings speak to me so much because the perspective isn’t accurate. When you imagine a space, when you think about the way we see things, our perspective is always moving, because we’re not completely stationary all of the time; we’re fidgeting or standing or walking, and our perspective is always changing. For perspective to be perfect and static is not how I see the world. I want all these paintings to be some mix between an imagined space and something you can observe. There’ll be a scene that seems like it could be accurate, with shadows that look accurate, but really, if this stuff existed in the world, it would fall apart. It couldn’t quite exist in the world; it would defy gravity. So, it goes back to that battle between order and disorder.
LW: How would you describe the process that drives your aesthetic?
AB: I’m trying to depict something that’s as real as possible, in a certain way, in the age of ubiquitous photography. There’s something about the fact that we know what everything looks like from film, from TV, from photographs, from Instagram. There are images everywhere, and all that stuff leaves a mark in your mind about what something looks like—the way a banana looks, or a painting. And then there’s this kind of melting quality when you imagine something. There’s some in-between thing, where something’s becoming or something’s happening that you can’t get in any other way than with paint. You can’t photograph things that don’t exist, so to capture those things, you need a medium where anything is possible. Paint does that for me. The unruliness of the liquid, of the color, of all that stuff; whatever you imagine, you can make it real.
Amber Boardman, Apartment Therapy, 2022, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches photo: Felicity Jenkins
Amber Boardman is an American-born, Sydney-based artist who explores the influence of the internet on crowds and social norms. Boardman combines her background in painting and animation to create narrative works that draw from the visual language of cartoons, influenced in part by her work as an animator for Cartoon Network’s [adult swim]. Her work is represented by Chalk Horse in Sydney, Sophie Gannon Gallery in Melbourne, and Sandler Hudson Gallery in Atlanta.
Amber Boardman photo: Lauren K. Watel
Lauren K. Watel’s debut book, Book of Potions, a collection of prose poetry, was awarded the
Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry and will be published in fall 2024 by Sarabande Books.
Her poetry, fiction, essays and translations have appeared widely, including in The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, The Nation, Ploughshares and The Hudson Review.
She lives and works in Decatur, Georgia and Brooklyn, New York.
Lauren K. Watel
photo: Ashley Kauschinger