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 favoured 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 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 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 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.
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—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 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.