JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 large scale color works, hung unframed against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are digital paintings on anodized aluminum, made in 2019. Physical sizes are either 59×59 or 44×72 inches, and all of the works are unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)
Comments/Context: As the digital tools available to photographers have grown increasingly powerful, it’s becoming harder and harder to draw a bright definitional edge around the medium of photography. With each succeeding year, it seems there is a gradual leaking process taking place, with computational effects and filters blurring the once obvious boundaries – simple darkroom-replacement image clean up has quickly edged into layers of subtle and no so subtle manipulation and further on to outright construction and creation. But this erosion process has been surprisingly healthy for photography, as it’s opening up lots of new creative white spaces.
One now-obsolete rule of thumb for defining a “photograph” was to carefully judge its final physical form – if an artwork was output as a photographic print, we could reliably assume it was a photograph. But with the wider use of digital paint programs (as seen in David Hockney’s digital drawings) and native Photoshop art making (like Cory Arcangel’s one click Photoshop gradients), it can now easily be the case that a photographic print never had anything to do with a camera. Similarly, as printing technologies have become more flexible, photographic imagery can now be printed on almost anything, including metal, plastic, fabric, canvas, vinyl, as well as any number of even more three dimensional and/or sculptural materials, so a 21st century photograph has no need to take form as a traditional photographic print. And digital image appropriation (particularly enabled by the Internet) has also meaningfully upset the photographic apple cart, making the now widespread sourcing and re-using of existing imagery its own subgenre inside the medium, further undermining the previously unbreakable bond between photographer and camera.
So in looking at Petra Cortright’s recent works, it is certainly fair to question whether we ought to reasonably categorize them as photographs – probably not, if we are honest, but by trying to evaluate them in that context, we can attempt to further define where the shifting photography boundary might lie. Cortright’s pictures settle right into the in-between zone, breaking all the rules. They are native Photoshop constructions created with no use of a camera, combining Internet-sourced image fragments (often tweaked and distorted) and expressive digital mark-making (made with custom Photoshop “brushes”). They exist in the “space” of a floating software grid, rather than some defined place in the real world. And they are printed on large aluminum sheets (as unique works), using multiple layered passes of printing, effectively sandwiching multiple images on top of each other.
Stylistically, Cortright’s compositions are loosely frenetic, with visual stimuli of various kinds seemingly flying around and overloading our ability to gather it into one coherent statement or narrative. Gestural digital brushstrokes are laid down (and reused) expressively, with “painterly” sweeps and swoops adding bright spots of color and movements coalescing into small circles, squiggles, and elaborate swirls. Here and there inside this cascade of abstract marking, we can recognize something vaguely representational – a fragment of a distorted photograph, or brushstrokes that seem to imply flower blossoms, plant forms, or some other even more random reference. Strangely, in a few instances, these small cues connect Cortright’s pictures back to Monet’s garden studies, the Impressionistic forms and colors lingering just on the edge of echoing memory.
But then as we look more closely, the artifacts of Cortright’s software composition process start to become more apparent. Changes in scale of nearby brushstrokes, the exact repetitions of markings from work to work (or even within the same work), and the hard edges of rectangular pages laid on top of each other remind us this isn’t a typical painting. The rigid black grid hangs behind the activity, reminding us of the organizing gridlines of the software, but the brushstrokes are alternately opaque and transparent, creating the sense of front and back within the marks, even though they are pictorially flat. In some cases, the planes of painterly marks are more obvious, making Cortright’s distinct layering more prominent. In other works, the whole field of the work feels like a sketchbook that has been reused multiple times, the additive ideas piling up on top of each other haphazardly, but with contagious energy and vitality. All the action that starts out feeling flighty and distracted turns out to be densely collapsed and recombined, the rich three dimensions of the software space flattened into one crowded plane.
In Cortright’s compositions, the visual vocabularies of both painting and photography are evolving and transforming – in a sense, they are intermixing and cross-pollinating more than ever before as a result of using these digital tools. Her works exude a sense of frenzied, iterative aesthetic thinking, where snippets of ideas are quickly discovered, morphed, passed along, and incorporated into something new. What we should take away is their active embrace of speed and complexity, like that of the Internet. They are ingeniously processed landscapes of a sort, documenting a complex virtual space in constant recursive flux.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $52000 each. Cortright’s works have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $3000 to $65000.