2.12 / Review

From Santa Fe: Amy Cutler

By Randall Miller February 21, 2011

Three women sit in a field dutifully stitching up the bellies of a heap of prone tigers. The cats are large and clumsy loads; they appear no more ferocious than a streak of tiger-shaped beanbags. The real intensity lies behind the knitted brows of the women, whose ruminative psychology seems to spy objects light-years away from their skilled hands and the helpless bodies of such absurd tigers. Tiger Mending (2003) is just one of Amy Cutler’s more than two dozen paintings currently on view in Ruth Claxton / Amy Cutler / Runa Islam at SITE Santa Fe; the title of the show appropriately indicates that this three-woman exhibition is truly three solo shows under one roof. Each artist is given ample space to define her own reality, something Cutler does very well in the dreamy, storybook-like images she has created over the past ten years.

Cutler’s works of gouache on paper are charming, precise in their execution, and full of legible but curious narratives. Her meticulously rendered scenarios contrast graphically with large areas of the white paper. Leaving so much untouched—a choice that is simultaneously referential to the illustrational conventions of Western fairy tales and Far Eastern scroll paintings—lends an ethereal quality to her sparsely contextualized paintings. Her protagonists are groups of women, who often represent a collective Euro-American female identity hamstrung by tradition, conformity, duty, rivalries with other women, and unspecified symbolic burdens.

Nowhere do these elements collide more succinctly than in Cautionary Trail (2005), a painting in which a barrier of aprons strung between leafless aspen trees corrals dozens of women wearing patterned dresses. The women, whose facial expressions range from resigned to scornful, share a place with a row of simple gray houses on the far side of this dividing line. A few of the women approach the barrier, though it is unclear whether they are tying or untying the aprons. The ambiguity of these figures begins to suggest something larger about a woman’s own accountability for her role within an established social hierarchy, both within Cutler’s work and the worlds to which they allude.

In her paintings, Cutler explores symbols of domesticity and established responsibility through allegory—each scene is distinguished more by variations in her use of costuming and relative context than by topical variation. For instance, the

Tiger Mending, 2003; gouache on paper; 17.75 x 14.75 in. Courtesy of SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Cautionary Trail, 2005; gouache on paper; 16.5 x 22.25 in. Courtesy of SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico.

women in Viragos (2009) are clad in historical, festive peasant costumes, and they balance birdhouses from long poles anchored in their hair; the camel-like women in Plotline (2006) sport little black dresses, carry unplanted saplings on their backs, and march around a row of tiny houses. Each scene is like a single fragment torn from the middle pages of a discrete fairy tale, but also part of a larger continuum in which complex social behaviors performed by women are but ritualistic allusions to concerns about the home and family.

Though many of Cutler’s vignettes allude to a type of passive restraint sometimes considered to be the template for appropriate feminine behavior, at least one image raucously transgresses this trope. In Dinner Party (2002), clothing again serves as a referent for women’s historical endurance of certain social conditions. Yet, here, ladies in Victorian or Antebellum hoop skirts unleash an animalistic rage in preparation for some sort of battle. Two women stand on a dining room table that is half covered by a tapestry featuring dogs hunting deer. The women have tied chairs festooned with cleavers, knives, and other potentially dangerous household utensils to their hair. They rear back like bucks about to clash, toppling over a generous spread of food in the process. Nearby, two other finely dressed women are engaged in combat on the floor, and one is about to bring a blade down on the other. Whereas the home, social convention, and the availability of necessities have been viewed for centuries by moralizing cultural institutions as domesticating influences on humanity, the beast lying within Cutler’s ladies cannot always be contained. A woman’s place in relation to the dichotomous worlds of nature and civilization—the animal kingdom and the cultivated sphere of mankind—is another primary theme in Cutler’s work; competition persists, almost as a rite of passage.

Often humorous, Cutler’s engaging tableaus illustrate such contradictions within the Western world’s civilizing mission—particularly addressing the dehumanized role that women have frequently played in this undertaking. These social ruptures are tragically, comically, and painfully sutured within a vernacular framework that allows the artist space to point viewers in this direction without overtly moralizing her subject matter. Like all good fairy tales, Cutler’s allegories transport the viewer to new, magical realities that illuminate hidden peculiarities within our own strange world.

 

Amy Cutler is on view as part of Ruth Claxton / Amy Cutler / Runa Islam at SITE Santa Fe, in New Mexico, through May 15, 2011.

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