Little Seeds of Your Bones: Amy Bravo
Feature / July 2022
Little Seeds of Your Bones: Amy Bravo
By Lily Houston Smith
There is something large about Amy’s paintings—not just in terms of their size but of the mythological scope of their narratives. “They’re not human,” she said of the figures who populate them. “They’re trying really hard to be, but they’re like failed experiments.” Many of these ghostly, human-like forms have animal body parts—a black rooster head, for instance, evoking the death of a male—or otherwise exist among animals: bulls, roosters, horses—all weighted with spiritualism and history.
On the floor of her Tribeca studio, where I visited in early June, there was a massive canvas depicting five mostly nude women on horseback, the blankness of their forms set in striking contrast to the rich texture of the horses’ bodies. As she explained, the bay horses that appear in many of her paintings stem from her grandparents’ young adulthood in Cuba. Before they married, her grandfather would visit her grandmother at her family farm, borrow one of their horses to ride home, and then send that horse back to the farm. “He would just smack it on the butt and hope it got there,” Amy said, “and if it didn’t, my great-granddad probably would not have wanted him to come back over.” She explained how through this bit of family lore, these animals came to symbolize a safe mode of transport between worlds. “My whole family exists,” she said, “because of this one loyal horse.”
Amy’s grandparents, who emigrated to the States from Cuba in 1949 and died when Amy was a teenager, are the inspiration for many of these artworks. She described the tensions—political and otherwise—between older and newer generations of Cuban-Americans, as well as the difficulty of recreating the landscape of a place she has never been. Fantasy, myth, and ritual color in the gaps in her historical and geographical knowledge, which lends the paintings a sense of both whimsy and eeriness.
At one point, she showed me a bowl of human teeth she’d made from glue. These fake teeth had recently been cropping up in her artwork. “I started creating rituals around regrowing your family members,” Amy said. “My mother has always saved our baby teeth, and she keeps them in these little silver cups. When I see them, I think they look like the seeds of a human being. They're little seeds of your bones.” She described an imagined ritual in which she would plant a tooth from her grandfather and preen the plant that sprouted from it, creating a new, more perfect version of the actual man. Idealization, she told me, was something she thought about a lot—the ways in which it can erase an actual person and leave something else in their wake.
Amy has a fluid relationship to identity, which reflects back in the collaged nature of her paintings, if they can even be labeled as such. “It's easy to describe yourself as a painter, but I don’t think these are paintings,” she said. “Paint is sort of secondary to the drawing. I feel like I'm drawing out, rather than painting in.” Her canvases grow structural limbs made of wood, plaster, stucco, epoxy, and have a makeup as collaged as her own heritage and identity. One composition, “The Two Bravos,” was painted between the stretcher bars on the backside of a canvas and stood on papier-mâché legs. "I don't know how people work on this,” she said of traditional stretched canvases. “You’re locked into this composition. You can't spread out and go elsewhere.”
Each of Amy’s pieces feels like a pointed reaction against confinement. When I visited her studio, she was daunted by the prospect of having to find a new space to work in. She’d just completed her MFA at Hunter College and would soon have to vacate the studio where we met. The challenge before her was to find a new space in New York that could accommodate the scale of her paintings. “The work is only going to get bigger,” she told me, “not smaller.”
1-5. Courtesy of Amy Bravo.