Amy Cutler: Using Magical Materiality as Feminist Critique
The year of the Woman has passed. A simple twist on the Chinese zodiac rebranded 2018—and the animal was Woman. This belittling subtext has not been lost on many women artists, writers, and academics in the United States. Amy Cutler has dedicated her career to the cultural subtexts associated with womanhood. She draws a network connecting history and mythology, revealing the guts of that animal-woman as a straw man other to an audience of power. Women are not beasts; but history, fiction, folk tales, and think pieces generally confuse this fact. Combining magical realism and materiality, Cutler’s work confronts viewer's historical and cultural assumptions about womanhood—animal or otherwise.
Amy Cutler compresses the dream of first wave feminism—creating a woman space for and by women—with a haunting sense of ecofeminist desire. Empty landscapes enforce an aggressive loneliness in her compositions despite the multitude of figures. Cutler reinforces the material reality of her work through the beautiful texture of Japan paper, through the fan-like deckle edge of a laid pulp, or through her floating compositions that hang tightly in the center of an otherwise exposed page. Yet this substance only adds to the draw of the dream space. The magical reality floats in a sea of material presence, a constant reminder of the interior and exterior reality of life as a woman.
Intervention, currently on view in We Contain Multitudes, an exhibition investigating the influence and afterlife of the historical miniature in contemporary painting (curated by Ali Banisader at Galerie Isa, on view January 16 to March 12, 2019) embodies this dynamic perfectly. Intervention weaves together a manifest material with the specter of cultural dreams. Three sombre women stand rigidly within a thicket of goose necks. For Amy Cutler, “birds represent migrating thoughts, which travel in and out of the head.” With Intervention, those thoughts have traveled off the page. Ribbons adorn the headless necks, tied on in various places; like measurements of height they suggest the goose necks have grown over the edge. Time and cultural translation has made these animals into monsters; another theme that surfaces throughout Cutler's work.
These geese remind me of the horns of Moses—a visual produced by Jerome’s mistranslation of Hebrew, resulting in medieval and renaissance artists depicting him with horns. In Intervention, Cutler has re-translated Jack and the Beanstalk from masculine moralizing to ecofeminist experience, producing distended, hybrid creatures. The women live among headless monsters, attendant as witnesses to document their transformation from natural proportion to abnormal scale.
This painting is about borders and boundaries. The geese become lifeless, distended monsters because the boundary of the paper's edge has cut them out of the viewer's narrative. We are segregated from the Women-world by bars generated through monstrous animals. The space is sliced by bare page, the front geese standing precariously on the edge of their mirage-world and clustered tightly to keep us out, or perhaps to keep themselves in.
The feathered edge of the paper itself reinforces the space between reality and fiction, while simultaneously bridging the gap between them. The irregular edge is both a reminder of the process of paper making and of the structure of downy goose feathers. The paper asserts its objecthood yet tapers off, vanishing at its irregular edges like a cloud. Melting into reality softly, the paper's periphery is like an apparition materializing in thin air.
Magic occurs in the liminal space of the in-between world. Cutler creates images at once material and ephemeral, living between conflicting desires for painting, drawing, presence and absence. These works propel the viewer in and out of her dream space. Like the geese who may push us away or hold themselves together, these are ambivalent images.
In Cutler’s own words,
Ambiguity makes the work more accessible… It’s not important for the viewer to understand the backstory to each image because as time passes the meaning also changes for me… If I was to fill in all the details the image becomes static and harder to enter. They have to remain flexible for them to have their own life.
Animals are not the only metaphorical content in Amy Cutler’s work. I have glimpsed thrilling new explorations in narrative signifiers and technique in her most recent paintings. Her upcoming show at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects (on view from March 8 to April 27, 2019) features pliable women’s bodies in dress recalling both stiff Victorian bodices and a neo-Russian-Futurist aesthetic. Not quite the Handmaid's Tale—although the dystopic urge lingers in these disenchanted faces—fleshy masks dangle from the women’s necks, with no distinction between “real” and false face. Still investigating the space between reality and fiction, personality and persona, and history and mythology, Amy Cutler’s work forces us to remember that there is no one definition of womanhood. There will never be a year of the woman because “woman” is human, not a predictable group with set traits, and certainly not a zodiacal icon.
Gazing at these works, I see not so much a nightmare or fairy tale as an interior world, delicately exposed to the viewer as a source of insight and experience. Cutler's work combines a sense of magic realism with aggressive material presence. Magical realism adapts readily to feminist critiques like the memoir—both mediums are fast becoming dominant modes of expression for the feminist author because they give specific, yet adaptable and relatable insight into the lived experience of womanhood. Amy Cutler has successfully generated a world of magical realist forms that push the viewer to look beyond the magic and toward the material reality of the object; toward the real experience of individual women.
Kristen Racaniello is an art historian, curator, and artist living and working in New York City. Racaniello is pursuing a PhD in medieval art at the CUNY Graduate Center, is an Adjunct Professor of Art History at Queens College, a Partner at Field Projects Gallery, and an Assistant at Les Enluminures.