Sur­re­al­ist for­est

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Amy Cut­ler’s col­lab­o­ra­tive in­stal­la­tion

The mood in Amy Cut­ler’s paint­ings is part fairy tale and part iso­lated sur­re­al­ist land­scape, where ac­tion hap­pens de­void of con­text. Women dressed in com­pli­cated, old-fash­ioned cos­tumes evok­ing var­i­ous cul­tures hike up the stone face of a moun­tain and travel by boat. They might also phys­i­cally be the moun­tain or the boat. They mend the flesh of tigers with nee­dle and thread, pre­pare to go sled­ding, and joust on horse­back, wield­ing black um­brel­las. They are al­most uni­formly dour yet ac­cept­ing in their fa­cial ex­pres­sions, as if they un­der­stand ex­actly what the world has handed them.

In 2011, Cut­ler had a solo ex­hi­bi­tion of her work at SITE Santa Fe. She re­turns to SITE as part of 20 Years/20 Shows with a col­lab­o­ra­tive in­stal­la­tion. Cut­ler usu­ally paints in gouache on pa­per be­cause the vi­brant pig­ments seem to ab­sorb rather than re­flect light, which gives her im­ages a matte qual­ity. She’s not in­ter­ested in see­ing brush­strokes or other “painterly” qual­i­ties in her work. Cut­ler has never be­fore at­tempted col­lab­o­ra­tive in­stal­la­tion work, ei­ther, and as of this writ­ing, she had not yet named the piece. Be­cause it can only be com­pleted in the gallery space, she also didn’t know ex­actly what the fi­nal re­sult would look like.

“My sketches are re­ally rough. The ini­tial idea was very lit­eral, about a 1915 tele­phone switch­board op­er­a­tor who was sit­ting there mak­ing the con­nec­tions, putting prongs in and out, and lis­ten­ing in,” she told Pasatiempo.

In con­sid­er­ing how to trans­late the feel­ing of her paint­ings to an in­stal­la­tion, Cut­ler re­al­ized she needed to empty the com­po­si­tion of peo­ple, so as to al­low the view­ers to be­come the fig­ures in the piece. She was fur­ther inspired by im­ages of twisted and tan­gled mul­ti­col­ored tele­phone wires in In­dia, which she called “a gor­geous mess,” as well the hair ropes con­tained in the Hi­gashi Hon­ganji, or the Eastern Tem­ple of the Orig­i­nal Vow, in Ky­oto. Soon the wires be­came hair ropes braided by Adri­ana Pa­pa­leo, a high-level artis­tic stylist who works on run­way shows and photo shoots. “I just let her take over my stu­dio with the braids, and it sounds cheesy, but it re­ally felt like my paint­ings came alive,” Cut­ler said.

View­ers will en­ter an aspen for­est braided through with hair ropes and dec­o­rated with fab­rics that echo the cos­tumes in Cut­ler’s paint­ings. The ropes con­verge at a lean-to in the cen­ter of the room. In­side the lean-to is a hive around which two view­ers can sit and use a de­vice to con­trol the au­dio por­tion of the in­stal­la­tion, record­ings by Emily Wells. Mul­ti­ple lay­ers of mu­sic and sound can be ma­nip­u­lated by the par­tic­i­pants against the am­bi­ent noise of breath lifted from be­tween the spo­ken words in mul­ti­ple in­ter­views recorded with friends — sure to be a provoca­tive sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence.

In Cut­ler’s paint­ings, the ac­tiv­i­ties that take place are si­mul­ta­ne­ously mun­dane and nec­es­sary, and some­times fan­tas­ti­cal, with a fo­cus on hand­i­work and small, in­tri­cate move­ments. The women of­ten carry packs or im­ple­ments of some kind, a form of bur­den, though they seem in­ured to the stress of it. View­ers take on the bur­den of ac­tiv­ity in the in­stal­la­tion, yet the theme of the piece is “un­bur­den­ing,” a con­cept that Cut­ler said in­cludes the act of sit­ting down to lis­ten on ex­trav­a­gantly dec­o­rated head­phones made par­tially of hu­man hair. Un­bur­den­ing is also a facet of the story be­ing told.

“Emily recorded a long con­ver­sa­tion with her fa­ther. Let’s just say they got through some stuff,” Cut­ler said. “I don’t want to give away too much. I want there to be plenty of sur­prises.”

Amy Cut­ler: Hair Mill, 2007, graphite on pa­per, cour­tesy of the artist and Les­lie Tonkonow Art­works + Projects, New York

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