In Amy Cutler’s creations, folklore, fairy tales, and personal iconography all vie for attention—and presence on the page.
No question about it, Amy Cutler is an artistic mixologist. The inspirations for her drawings and gouache-on-paper works encompass anxieties about global warming, Persian dynastic stories, a favored pair of shoes, and deceased family members. An idea can come from just about anywhere, arising most often when the artist is simply sketching. “I always draw first, and then the detail develops on its own,” she says.
This almost subconscious way of arriving at visual narrative is a process that, for Cutler, goes way back. “In childhood, I thought drawing was a bit like voodoo—I could work out my struggles and take control of certain situations,” she says. “It was also therapeutic, helping me get through my parents’ divorce. … And if there was a person I didn’t like, I could draw them as a dead mouse, a bit of secret revenge.”
Nowadays, not much has changed for Cutler, minus the rodent payback. Her studio routine consistently involves drawing and making thumbnail sketches before selecting and fine-tuning a final composition. She makes a habit of reviewing retired sketchbooks filled with years-old drawings, which often provide her with new inspiration.
Molar Migration by Amy Cutler, gouache, 22 3⁄8 x 22 7⁄8. All artwork this article © Amy Cutler; courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York, New York.
In Molar Migration , for instance, Cutler began with an image that she had drawn years before: a human head opened up like a medicine chest to reveal all the busy inner workings of the mind.
In one chamber, a hot tub represents a sort of “spa” of the psyche and the figure’s pursuit of calm. Further down, a bronco bucking on the tongue could be impeding communication or just the opposite—representing the chaos that is left in the wake of being too free with one’s opinions.
Certainly there’s no end to the interpretations, which is in keeping with Cutler’s aim to use her work not to explain what is going on in her life but to articulate themes she wants to explore through metaphor. Still, Cutler puts a lot out there.
“I get loose with my private things, but the more personal I am, the more response I get,” she says. Despite the personal cornerstones that ground Cutler’s work, there is a lot that steers the drawings and paintings away from reality.
Embargo by Amy Cutler, gouache, 23 x 30.
For one, Cutler’s artistic world is almost exclusively female, and the women who occupy it are like an unfamiliar tribe whose rituals are carried out with great seriousness, no matter the absurdity of their tasks. In Embargo , dowager-esque females with fancy updo’s outfitted in what look like 19th-century day dresses are turned into prows of ships—quite a contrast to the comely figureheads that usually adorn sea vessels.
Other paintings feature Cutler’s figures braiding copious amounts of hair, performing military maneuvers in inner-tubes, and fording bodies of water on the backs of elephants. In Tiger Mending —Cutler’s “greatest hit,” which was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial in 2004—the figures play Florence Nightingale to the big sleeping cats, sewing up their wounds with neat stitches.
From these peculiar and somewhat arduous activities, one might ascribe Herculean stamina or fearlessness to these painted ladies, but in Cutler’s mind they aren’t so powerful. Instead, she sees them simply as everyday women. The tasks they perform are less physical challenges and more about the nature of being consumed by a duty or a situation and the resulting tension that comes from it. No matter the task at hand, all of the figures face their conditions with stern aplomb, seemingly unmoved by any obstacle they face.
Initiation by Amy Cutler, gouache, 22 x23 1⁄2.
A Singular Focus
Although they are most often presented in groups, Cutler’s figures rarely seem to notice one another. Through this dynamic, Cutler explores the nature of collective separatism, or as she puts it, “how you can be in a room and working toward one thing together, yet that same thing creates solitude for the individual. I actually picture myself looking the same way they do while I am painting—concentrated in this time-consuming task, getting serious and withdrawn.”
Most of Cutler’s finished works are done in gouache , but her style is largely based on line and can be considered drawing as much as painting. Her mark-making instruments are not far removed from traditional drawing tools—the brush most often in her hand is a 6/0, which has a head the width of a toothpick. It allows her to achieve meticulous detail in the many costumes, textiles, and objects that fill her images.
She can’t do much with it besides draw lines, but the artist says she would never consider trading in her brush for an actual pen. “I do draw and use a lot of linework, but there is something about line made with a brush—it undulates and you can’t get it with anything else,” she says. “I don’t use any painterly techniques. It is not about how the paint sits on the surface. I am actually trying to hide that so that it’s more about the image.”
Cutler uses gouache because of the intensity of the colors available and the fact that the pigment dries matte, an excellent way to mask surface quality. “It’s something about the way the light is absorbed and not reflected,” she says, although she is also aware of the limits of the medium. “Once you cover the tooth of the paper, it’s saturated, and beyond that it will be pasty and gloppy, without the crisp lines I want.”
Gorge by Amy Cutler, gouache, 59 3⁄4 x 40 1⁄2.
In situations where Cutler is drawing objects or animals she isn’t entirely familiar with, she’ll consult simple plastic toys or watch nature videos. “For anatomy, I just work it out in a sketchbook,” she says. “I never use a reference when I am working. I’d rather it be awkward and wrong than stiff. That just sticks out. And the slowness of going back and forth when you are looking at something just doesn’t work for me.”
Cutler tends to start with the faces of her figures after loosely drawing a preparatory sketch on her watercolor paper, which she pins to the wall to work on. She usually has four or so pieces going simultaneously and will often go back and forth among them rather than completing them one at a time. “If I finish one from beginning to end, I suffocate and kill it,” she says.
As she works, Cutler remains open to modifying her images, as she did with the painting Gorge , which depicts women in elaborate costumes transformed into the craggy peaks of mountaintops. Their vantage points allow them to see everything around them, but they are immobilized, unable to move or change their situation.
As she worked on the piece, Cutler thought the image had interesting psychological undertones and engaging visual elements, but she could tell it wasn’t quite done. “It was so boring,” she says. It wasn’t until she was looking on Flickr and came across a photo of prayer flags that Gorge was ready to be completed. “At the time, the meaning of the flags—that every time the wind blows and the flags wave it is believed that they are sending prayers—really touched me,” says the artist, whose stepfather was then struggling with cancer. “I thought to myself, I need Tibetan prayer flags! And I attacked the piece with all these primary colors, and that is what finished it for me. They saved me, because it was other- wise a dead painting.”
Ursy by Amy Cutler, gouache, 5 1⁄2 x 4 3⁄4. From the series “Brood.”
Recently, Cutler has been on a different track, creating works of portraiture that started out simply as a lark, an experiment to use up a slick-surfaced Japanese paper that a friend had given her. “I thought it was just going to be this running practice of doing things for myself,” she says. But her latest series, “Brood,” features more than a dozen painted headshots of grimacing, frowning, and a few outright scowling ladies. They are bedecked with hats and jewelry, lace collars and folded bibs, their clothing enriched with the patterns that Cutler so loves to create.
Cutler did not play to the vanity of her figures, painting in detail their crepey, crackled, and sagging skin. But in her hands these signs of age are made abstractly beautiful, and viewers sink into the works through these passages of intricate line and color.
The far-fetched scenes Cutler is known for are nowhere to be found—a departure the artist welcomed. “When you become known for something, it becomes frustrating,” she says. She spent a year exclusively creating these portraits, but she has since come back to familiar territory.
Waders by Amy Cutler, gouache, 40 x 60.
“I did miss creating full stories, so I am back to narratives, although I can’t talk about them,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a magic romance that I can’t expose.” What she is willing to reveal is how she is preparing for her next steps in the studio. “Looking at my old drawings— that is a constant,” she says. “They’re just pencil sketches in a sketchbook, but they are a reservoir to me. I look back and find one that lets me see where I wanted to go next all along.”
About the Artist
Amy Cutler received her B.F.A. from The Cooper Union, in New York City, in 1997. She participated in the 2004 Whitney Biennial and has held solo exhibitions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kansas City, Missouri; and the Weatherspoon Art Museum, in Greensboro, North Carolina, among other venues. Her work is found in public collections worldwide, including the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, in Madrid; the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles; and The Museum of Modern Art, in New York City. Cutler lives and works in New York.