Amy Cutler, Recent Paintings on Paper, Apr. 22-June 12, 2004, at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Any office drudge saddled with an oppressive routine can empathize with the characters in Brooklyn-based painter Amy Cutler's timely rendered gouache-on-paper works. And though unhappiness is gender-neutral, it is no accident that Cutler paints worlds populated only by women.
In 1971, Anne Sexton used the bare bones of familiar Grimms fairytales as the base for Transformations, her book of autobiographical poems through which she told the story of womens limited lives before feminism. After Sexton, feminist writers, artists and theorists pored over fairy tales for evidence that they indoctrinated women with self-loathing, promoted passivity and fostered unrealistic expectations.
With similar intent, Cutler employs her remarkable skill to present original parables of women who are tethered to their Cosmo Girl-induced insecurities and haunted by traditional definitions of femininity. And like Sexton, Cutler gives most of the women she depicts her own face.
Amy Cutlers original myths are particularly disarming. Her hodgepodge of ethnicities and references is almost as wondrous as her use of magic and grotesquery. She jumbles together European iconography with characters in Shaker or hippie garb, and renders it all with a technique that recalls Chinese watercolors and Persian prints. Caucasian characters ride Arabian horses in Equine Pell Mell, while Viragos shows Asian girls in Russian costumes with impossibly long hair pulled straight by thin poles, like those tightrope walkers use for balance, off of which the women hang birdcages and other random objects.
Merging vibrant cultures doesnt elevate the strain of the stultifying courses Cutler puts her characters through in her allegories of repression and obsession. Cutler depicts housework and factory jobs, as well as sweatshop-type labor in images like Tiger Mending, in which a group of Asian women stitch up tigers' wounded bodies using a needle and tread. Even maternity is seen as stifling in Progeny, in which two womans mouths are stopped up with their long, thin infants wearing snugglies that match their mothers bright pioneer dresses. With no way to communicate to each other, one woman reaches out and tears off the others hand.
And though her paintings are dreamlike, her characters are punished for attempting to have their own escapist reveries. In Trial, a few dourly dressed women build a brick wall around their similarly dressed friends who stand with eyes lifted to the sky where they apparently are flying kites whose strings are really threads they unwind from their dresses. While the women building the wall get their skirts caught and sandwiched between the bricks, the women flying the kites are inadvertently unraveling their dresses.
In Army of Me, a giant version of Cutler stands awkwardly looking out at a rally of smaller self-portraits waiting before her. Everyone wears chipper print dresses and dowdy shoes, and they gaze up at their leader expectantly. Cutler Mere seems bewildered and tongue-tied; her fists are clenched. How can she represent or integrate these facets of herself? What can she possibly tell all these attentive young women? Thankfully, the real Amy Cutlers paintings are eloquent enough.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.