JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 works, floated in thin wood frames, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are digital paintings on Belgian linen, made in 2021. Each is sized 33×33 inches, and is unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)
Comments/Context: For artists like Petra Cortright, who came to their artistic maturity in the early 2000s, at roughly the same time as the broad adoption of Adobe Photoshop (and other tools like it), the once definite separations between the mediums of painting, photography, and computer art are hardly relevant. Unlike cross-over painters who have embraced iPad drawing and digital printing, photographers who have added in digital image manipulation, and digital artists who have leveraged photographic archives, artists like Cortright are essentially born and bred Photoshop natives, and therefore carry little of the aesthetic or process baggage associated with starting out somewhere else. In her case, that lack of medium-specific thinking is both leveling and freeing, as it brings with it an openness to disregarding previously agreed-upon priorities and limits.
In the past few years, Cortright has been applying her considerable digital prowess to deliberately deconstructing and disrupting the edges of what we call contemporary painting. In many ways, she has been asking herself a series of fundamental questions about the nature of the medium: what is subject matter; what is a brush stroke (or mark making more broadly); what are the characteristics of painterly surface and texture; what is vantage point; how is depth visualized; and where is the edge between representation and abstraction? These are in no way new artistic questions, but Cortright’s answers don’t look anything like those we’ve seen before.
Cortright’s recent efforts at unpacking painterliness, as seen in her 2019 gallery show (reviewed here) and elsewhere, have come at painting with an overt nod to high-paced technological sheen. Her backdrops have often been indeterminate Photoshop-like grids, her substrates have included shiny aluminum, and her marks have variously leveraged the textures of digital brushes, snippets of photographic imagery, iterative duplication and reuse, and complex Photoshop compositing and layering. These works have merged the frenetic movement of the digital world with a conscious aspect of stripped-down remixing, leading to compositions that have felt energetically active and on the edge of dissolution. The fact that these works have failed to adhere to usual painterly modes and aesthetics is exactly why they have been intriguing.
The new works on view at Foxy Production find Cortright pushing further back toward the traditional conventions of painting, only to unravel them right before our eyes. Her central subject in all the works is ostensibly a floral still life set up, with the petaled white blossoms of an Angel Wing Clematis (alternately along with leaves, branches, other fruits, and at least one Pansy) housed in what might be called a vase, and placed on what might be called a tabletop, in what might be her studio. A quick look at the works themselves will reveal why my language here is so ambivalent and shaded – in certain works, some of these elements present themselves recognizably, but in most, all of these pictorial assumptions are up for debate.
Process-wise, where Cortright “started” is likely irrelevant, but our eye naturally gravitates towards the white Clematis blossoms and the associated greenery, as they are recognizable photographic fragments that she has used again and again in different combinations and orientations. They tie us to some kind of still life reality, which is important later, as Cortright upends most of the rest of the structure we might normally associate with the genre. As an example, in some cases, what appears to be the hint of rounded vase sits below the floral bouquet; in others, the vase has been crudely drawn in with digital paint marks; in still others, the vase has been replaced by a tangle of what looks like grey computer cord gathered into a knot; and in a few, it disappears altogether, leaving the mass of almost flowers floating in a more undefined space.
Cortright similarly applies this kind of shifting uncertainty to her backdrops and spatial arrangements. Is the hard edged blue square a window, or perhaps a water view? Is that squiggle of green underneath some kind of landscape or plot of grass? Are the planes of what look like Plexiglas or just splattered tabletop meant to invoke some feeling of space? There are of course no right answers to these questions, as their very ephemerality allows us to interpret them as we wish.
Even when Cortright removes all of these potential spatial identifiers and allows the floral jumble to hover against what looks like flat expanses of raw or black stretched canvas, she still keeps us guessing. All of these “digital paintings” have been printed on linen, so up close, they inherently have a texture associated with that substrate of woven cloth. But Cortright’s works actually have their own enlarged textures from other canvases as their backgrounds, so she has in effect printed one scale of texture on top of another physical reality, which certainly gets pleasingly confusing when observed closely. The same might be said for one backdrop that looks like a fragment of a colorful painted scene made with Impressionist or Fauve active brushstrokes – the marks on the backdrop are far larger than the ones in the floral still life, creating a smart dissonance of believable scale (and texture). To make matters even more complex, in another work, she has used an image backdrop with glops of paint actually on the canvas, so when reprinted they look photographically real, even though they are “behind” the rest of activity.
As we get pulled into the density of Cortright’s compositions, the diversity of her mark making becomes more apparent – at ten or twenty feet away, the still lifes look like swirling masses, gathered bunches, or messy gestural improvisations or approximations. Up close, that thickness and density resolves into intricately layered markings that overlap and entangle, each one its own contribution to or comment on the surrounding proceedings. She marks with photographic fragments, with digital stand-ins for charcoal, colored pencil, grease pencil, pastel, and oil paint, and with native digital tools filled with gradients and erasures. In a few works, her marks resolve into floral forms, with jagged blossom outlines that visually tussle and echo with the photographic Clematis nearby. In others, simple line drawings are copied, repeated, and reused, showing up in different compositions as primary or secondary decoration. Painterly marks seem to embellish, broad gestures seem to cancel, staccato lines seem to simply or amplify, closely scratched zones seem to add depth, and even seemingly “dusty” canvas is “wiped” to let underlayers show through more clearly. When all of these individual impulses are flattened into one plane, the effect is like following a crackling mind as rapidly task switches from one idea to the next, turning back on itself and constantly reevaluating its decisions, until something approaching impermanent equilibrium is discovered.
If we think about Cortright constructing paintings in stacks of digital layers, what she’s really doing in playing a kind of three-dimensional chess, where each move in each layer ripples up and down through all the rest. These floral still lifes appear to be a dozen or more layers thick, which implies a level of intellectual and pictorial complexity that is deceptively intense, and when seen together as a set, they can almost be considered akin to a computational exercise in iteration, with each final work a recombination of existing and new layers.
For me, these works represent a clear and resonant example of an artistic mindset evolution – this power-user software layering isn’t the way traditional painters or photographers see or construct the world. And while those being challenged may ultimately try (or be forced) to follow, artists like Cortright will have an inherent first mover advantage in exploring the new white space, defining the new “rules”, and deconstructing whatever adjacent media they choose to focus on. When domain experts like Cortright are reasonably doing things that might seem crazy (like blowing up what we think a painted still life is), it’s time to start paying attention.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $25000 each. Cortright’s works have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $3000 to $65000.