Riley Amanda: Transgressing Beauty

At the start of our conversation, Riley Amanda misspoke saying breast-stroke when they meant to say brushstroke. This freudian slip was fitting, seeing as the Kansas City-based painter spends most of their time consumed by thoughts and images of the femme form as they explore the edges of sexuality, gender, and the complexities of existing within a body in a highly physical world. 

“I just love the heaviness and the weight that bodies have,” Riley said. “And the work I have to put in to create that human weight and that depth, and how I can turn that around sometimes and dehumanize the body and really make it look like a painting.” 

Riley’s fantastical bodily imaginings and inhuman ideas about human bodies are at the heart of their work. They paint their way through femininity and out of it, depicting bodies with elongated arms, huge hands, and distended bellies, expanding expectations of what the femme form can be. 

“I think that femininity is just a feeling,” Riley remarked, adding that “female masculinity is even more important to (me) in some ways.”

Riley’s work pushes against gender norms, but it also pushes against realistic human form. In Riley’s paintings, bodies dwell in an ambiguous and androgynous realm with scrambled proportions and crooked angles. 

Many of Riley’s works depict the nude femme form, a subject matter that throughout history has traditionally been in the hands and eyes of men. While male depictions of femme figures have often been unrealistic and dis-proportional in search of idealized beauty (think Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Bratz dolls), Riley’s mis-proportioned femme figures are unrealistic, but definietly not in search of beauty. 

“I think a lot of my work is along the vein of realizing that the ‘grossness’ is okay,” Riley mused. “I do this in my poetry as well, where I relate stinky cheese to my body or roast beef to my vagina. I find comfort in being gross and allowing myself to depict grossness and not have it be ‘disgusting’”

At the same time, Riley invites other interpretations of their work. 

“I’m not afraid of things being sexy...if my work inspires that reaction, then that's cool with me, it’s just not necessarily what I’m going for,” Riley said. “I’m not asking for attention to these bodies, but I guess I am too. It’s very much a yes and no, black and white and grey—it’s everything.” 

Bringing an element of disgust to lust around the femme body allows Riley to transgress beauty and simultaneously offer new ways of seeing it. Through Riley’s skillful application of oil to canvas, nude bodies can resist and repel the male-gaze even as they inevitably invite it in. 

“I recently told someone that I wanted to make art that a cis man would feel grossed out masterbating to, like he would feel sick about himself,” Riley explained in half-jest. “I feel like I objectify the body, but I don’t want to objectify the body in a way that is pleasing to the male view. And I don’t know how to go about that because anything I make about the nude female form is potentially catered to the male gaze.” 

The near impossibility of escaping the male-gaze came up frequently in our conversation. But Riley doesn’t let that stop their work. They continue to make the work they want to, taking on the herculean task of both accepting and challenging male objectification as they go.

They turn their eye from models, to themself, to the canvas, employing self-portraiture as well as figure-drawing in their artistic practice. 

“My physical form is never how I imagine it to be,” they said. “I got high one time with my friend and we both have really strange feelings towards our bodies and I drew down what I thought I looked like and it was super strange. My body looked like it was pregnant, and my arms went down to my ankles and my neck was super skinny and my chin was pointing out and my feet were huge and I was like, ‘This is how I see myself sometimes — this is what I tell myself I look like.’”

That struggle of truly seeing one’s body and the perspectives from which one's body is seen by others makes the human form as weighty as Riley described it. Bodies are weighed down by ideals and desires, made heavy by expectations and the fun house mirrors that line our lives. In Riley’s work there is something freeing about letting go of realism and leaning in to other, queer imaginings instead. 

 “I’m obsessed right now with imagining my ‘perfect body.’” Riley said, motioning to their features as they spoke. My perfect body right now: my face would be covered in perfectly smooth hairs like a microfiber blanket..and the hairs would be blonde and would catch the sun, but also my skin would be shiny periwinkle all over and it would glitter and I would just walk through crowds of people with my glimmering skin.”

Follow Riley on Instagram @rubluby to see some of their femme forms. Congratulate them on their recent graduation from Kansas City Art Institute by commissioning a piece!