Petra Cortright's digital paintings, a tangled web of dots and swipes by Christopher Knight
Petra Cortright's paintings wedge themselves between the celebrated history of gestural art, mostly Expressionist and abstract, and the past generation's frantic upheaval of established visual norms generated by the emergence and now ubiquity of digital imagery.
Think of them as touch-screen paintings.
If you've ever done a drag-and-drop, you'll have a general idea of the five recent paintings in Cortright's inaugural solo exhibition at 1301PE. Digging around the Internet and using familiar computer software, she cobbles together pictures, palettes and markings into big, mostly dense and tangled compositions for printing on large sheets of rag paper and Belgian linen.
The squiggly marks on the surface recall the oily, swiped residue left behind by fingers on a smartphone or tablet. The big difference is that actual screen marks are tactile, while the smooth, inert surfaces of Cortright's digitally printed paintings are not. There's some tension between old and new conceptions of "the artist's touch," but as yet it's more cerebral than intuitive.
The intuition comes in the compositions. Cortright piles on loops, swoops, scribbles and slathers, invoking the ironic fusion of personal gesture and impersonal mass-production in Roy Lichtenstein's sleek brushstroke paintings from 1965-66. Where he made big gestures, however, which befit the crushing scale of the banality that had come to engulf Abstract Expressionist art, she taps into the sheer volume of today's roaring digital deluge.
Look closely, and an ancient Greco-Roman sculpture or a bunch of gaily colored pansies pokes through the enormous gestural mass. Nearby, in five flash-animation videos on small flat-screens, animals both real and imaginary — deer, fish, unicorn — likewise cavort through similarly gestural fields. These juxtapositions of digital culture with nature and material culture recall interests in video projections by Diana Thater and Jennifer Steinkamp. They're the work's most compelling feature.
In the relationship between these paintings and animations and the abandon of children's finger-paintings and the wackiness of SpongeBob SquarePants-style cartoons, there's also a hint of playfulness. Given the apparent inevitability of the printed work's inert surfaces, which operate like a visual mute button, Cortright would do well to ramp up that mischievousness.