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