Before children become old and blasé enough to work at making sense of lifes ethically grey areas, fairy-tales offer a world filled with moral paradoxes, beautiful colors and high-key imagery. In fairy-tales, childhoods fears, aspirations and desires are transformed into lush metaphors and images children can digest. But once children grow into adults, fairy-tale logic, the kind where combs become forests and wolves can speak, looses its immediacy and meaning.
Brooklyn-based Amy Cutler paints grown-up myths. She uses insight and skill to present original parables of women who are tethered to Cosmo Girl-induced insecurities, desperate for transformation and haunted by traditional definitions of femininity.
This Spring, Cutler exhibited her exquisite and unnerving paintings at the
Leslie Tonkonow Gallery and presented two large-scale works in the Whitney Biennial. Her solo show of paintings, currently at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, runs until July 11, 2004 and she has work on view in the Brooklyn Museum in Open House: Working in Brooklyn and at the Aldrich Museum in The Drawn Page. She will participate in "About Painting" at the Tang Museum of Art, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY and Matrix 213 at the Berkeley Art Museum, UC Berkeley this Fall.
Ana Finel Honigman: Do you have a full narrative in mind when you first conceive of your paintings' iconography?
Amy Cutler: No not really and there are always elements in them that I dont fully understand fully myself. I'll pick up on odd references and inject them into the narrative without necessarily interpreting them first.
AFH: From where do you cull your references?
AC: Often things I read about in the news inspire me.
AFH: Your paintings are not very journalistic. Do you think the term magic realism could apply?
AC:That sounds about right. While I absorb references through the media there are always underlying personal meanings in my paintings. Often it will be a year or more before I feel like I fully understand why I selected certain images and painted them the way I did.
AFH: Are you ever unnerved by how your work illustrates your personal life?
AC: Well, the painting in the Whitney of the women with the fans under their skirts actually had some surprising symbolism for me. I was thinking that putting electrical appliances in my images was a departure from what I usually do but I didnt feel it was really that remarkably different since I was not entirely abandoning the element of nostalgia. So, the women are still in the forest doing their laundry but all of a sudden they have an electrical fan to help them.
AFH: But where do they plug in the cords?
AC: Thats the surprise! At the time I could not understand why I had chosen this imagery but now I see that it relates to this particular time in my life when I am undergoing some intense personal transitions. So, the fans refer to a need to liberate oneself with, and I know this sounds corny, internal resources. As a woman, the lower half is conceptually so weighty that the fans offer the women the possibility of elevating themselves above that gravitas. It is really cheesy but because they have electrical fans and no source of external energy, I am realize that the source of their power is within themselves.
AFH: It does sound a little Oprah-like when you say it. Painting it is definitely much better.
AC: And it is important for it to be open-ended.
AFH: Are you skeptical of critical interpretation of your imagery?
AC: I usually find it very interesting. Sometimes I learn from critics interpretation.
AFH: Do you consider yourself as just one reader of your imagery and not the final authority?
AC: If a particular reading of my imagery is repeated by a lot of people than I often start to wonder whether I wasn't being as articulate as I had hoped or whether, perhaps, there were things in the image I just could not see for myself.
AFH: Do you think there a possible correct reading?
AC: Because my work is so illustrative, if something is misinterpreted too often then I just worry about the clarity. A couple of men reviewing the show kept talking about the painting Progeny as "women giving birth through their months." That was absolutely not my intention. I was looking at the image from a womens perspective and thinking about friends of mine who are starting to have children and are losing their own identity because they are subsuming themselves entirely into the maternal role and the needs of the child. They start to wear cute little garments and direct all their attention towards their amazing little miracle. All they talk about are baby-related topics and a lot of women my age are deciding to give up their careers and lives as individuals.
AFH: Have you noticed that men tend to have different interpretations of your imagery than women?
AC: Yes, men and women typically do see my work very differently though there is always that sensitive guy who can really get it.
AFH: Do critics interpretations interest you more than those of an average viewer?
AC: It all interests me. I get a lot of one-on-one criticism including from people who want to tell me their personal stories. And because I put a lot of my own life into my images, though the particulars are coded, I think there is enough of a sense of intimacy in my work that people are inspired to share their stories with me but oddly, critics tend to be a little shy in their interpretation. I think people are timid about revealing their personal interpretation of my work on record because it can be as ultimately revealing of the critic as of my work or me.
AFH: Are there particular themes you return to often, such as exploitation, as in Sugar Foot, your painting of women eating the sugar drained from other womens flattened bodies....
AC: Oh, I dont see that painting like that at all. That is great! Actually, that painting is related to another painting Id done titled Ironing. In that image, two women are ironing other women until they are completely flat and then they roll each other up and push each other to the side. That image was partially inspired by reality nip-and-tuck shows like The Swan but on a deeper level, it also relates to womens criticism of each other and their obsession with a super thin one-dimensional self-image.
AFH: And what about the iconography in Sugar Foot?
AC: Sugar Foot was related to our contemporary fascination with our diet and micro-managing what we eat. I recently read a book titled Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology by Edward Tenner in which there was a passage where he describes how sugar was considered a health food throughout much of this century. Sugar was thought of as a great source of nutrients and sustence. Apparently, this belief was so firmly held by doctors that in Mozarts day, they would substitute mothers milk with sugar water.
AFH: That sounds repulsive.
AC: Well, when I was a kid, I ate sugary cereal every morning and thought it was healthy. But in Sugar Foot the women are all pale, malnourished and miserable despite, or because, of the fact that they are gorging on cakes and mountains of sugar.
AFH: It is odd to think that Woody Allen prophesized the Atkins diet in Bananas, his satire of weird LA- food fads, with massive, genetically processed vegetables and other food-monstrosities.
AC: Contemporary culture is entirely rife with magic and folklore. When I read the New York Times, I tend to latch on to random stories and the imagery. Recent scientific experiments, like the one where they grew a human ear off of a pigs back or genetically crafted hybrid mice really inspire me. I am full of those stories. I could be the town freak with all her creepy tales but instead I paint.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.