gouache on paper, 22 x 30 inches
Collection of the New Museum of Contemporary Art—Altoids Collection, New York
Amy Cutler's intricately detailed depictions of women in strange circumstances are frequently described in terms of fables and fairy tales—no doubt because their quirky charm, descriptive acuity, and peculiar subject matter invite comparison to illustrated tales of bewitched frogs, flustered pigs, and maidens in distress.
Yet fables inevitably propose lessons to be learned, and fairy tales steer toward resolution. Cutler's images, on the other hand, offer neither moralizing nor pat conclusion. Even though they reflect themes in which Cutler may be deeply invested, they don't necessarily illustrate any sort of narrative, meta- or otherwise. They aren't even representations, in the sense that they invoke a prior visual incident. Instead, they stand alone. They are independent works of art, in the established, modernist sense of the term.
The occasional, perverse violence of Cutler's depictions, amplified by the telling detail with which they are executed, also has prompted comparison of her work to that of various visionaries and outsiders. The most frequent reference is to Henry Darger, whose Vivian Girls demurely tolerated any number of atrocities. But, even in her most grotesque situations, Cutler does not exhibit the genuine psychic disturbance found in works by Darger or other, often misogynist, outsiders. Her women are not victims. Instead, even the most ladylike of them generally seem to prevail over or, at least, make do with whatever is happening in their strange, fragmentary worlds.
All told, two other terms, less often applied to the work in question, seem more to the point. One is “dreamlike,” which has been used to cite the absurdity of Cutler's scenarios and their resistance to interpretation. Another is “surrealistic,” which, again, references the images' ambiguity. It's at this point—within this seeming paradox of precise detail and inexplicable occurrence—that we do, indeed, enter the dream-world of surrealism. Not the swooning, sensational realm of French surrealism, but the quietly charged imagery of René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, and other apparently buttoned-down Belgians.
Rather than concerning himself with style, with how to paint, Magritte obsessed on what to paint. Cutler, too, has developed a self-effacing approach to application of and rendition in paint—one that's a refinement of the way she has drawn since she was, well, a little girl. Her mode is neither exceptionally facile nor notably demotic, although, in its modesty, it calls a certain amount of attention to itself—if only because modesty is a rare commodity in today's world. At the same time, Cutler's signs and symbols hew to their historic, commonly accepted meanings. But, as did Magritte, Cutler combines her signifiers in such a way that the information they communicate no longer makes conventional sense.
That said, Magritte and his peers most often depicted figures and objects existing in perhaps-strange but generally recognizable space—domestic rooms and city streets. Cutler stops short of elaborating an environment within which her characters act. That absence of a stage, as it were, permits viewers even greater imaginative participation in the depicted goings-on. Cutler's characters operate in a pictorial void, against brilliant, open expanses of white paper. Often enough, her passages of paint don't even touch the paper's edges. It's as if they exist without anchoring of any sort. They are nowhere and anywhere—in a space akin to the ethereal gold ground of medieval European paintings.
On another level, by exploiting the fundamental contrast between open space and small detail, Cutler enhances the works' overall visual impact and its often-poignant absurdity. For example, the bristling of umbrellas in Umbrage (2001) is amplified by the positive/negative interaction of small black points and open whiteness. Too, the umbrellas are brandished by a quartet of women astride goats, with the ungainly body language of both species accentuated by that same contrast. In this and other respects, Cutler employs a common visual language with particular clarity, even transparency.
Her visual strategy also imparts a sense of temporally and spatially suspended procession to Four Snowmen (2002). Despite its title, the primary characters in Four Snowmen are four women, lined up one after another, facing the left side of the paper. With their scarf-wrapped heads, their greenish-brown tailored overcoats, and their black boots, the women are, by contemporary standards, so severely groomed that their status is difficult to determine. They might be middle-aged or much younger. They may live in poverty, they might be indulging in austerity. Overall, the relative uniformity of their attire suggests they belong to some kind of community. Each also wears a strip of cloth knotted around her upper left arm, furthering the sense that they share some kind of experience. Of course, their most significant shared attribute is the snowman—or, in the case of the first woman, the remains of a snowman—that accompanies each. Contained in old-fashioned galvanized metal tubs, with each tub resting on a spare, iron and wood sled, these suitors have about as much dynamic presence as the plastic groom that stands by his plastic mate on a wedding cake.
Such visual stimuli naturally provoke flights of fancy on the part of viewers. It's easy to imagine stories, to project narrative contexts, for such a depiction. Did the women make the snowmen themselves? If so, were they enacting a local custom of fabricating spouses? In that case, is snow the established medium or would they otherwise use straw or mud? Or, confronted with a shortage of flesh-and-blood males, did they decide to improvise? Are they just playing around or were they actually en route to a communal wedding—only to have the weather suddenly turn warm? The process of answering such questions might allow development of a contemporary fairy tale, but it also would add an element of closure that Cutler seems to avoid.
And, that said, what could be concluded from Cutler's visual account of octopi struggling to put on pajamas? Does Octopi (2002) contain a moral? Will their foolishly encumbering themselves with clothing lead to a bad end? Or will they learn their lesson, discard their PJs and resume appropriate octopus pursuits?
What about Resnouting (2000)? Here three girls (or so we might conclude from their flat chests) attempt to attach noses to pigs who bloodlessly have lost theirs. For no evident reason, other than the artist's serendipity, the picture also includes a row boat and a pair of oars. At the same time, Cutler's reference to pigs intentionally prompts viewers' recollections of Three Little Pigs and other traditional stories and nursery rhymes.
Cutler's pictures thus stir up possibilities both familiar and strange. But they also stimulate and sanction viewers to savor their own fantasies about what might be going on. Contemporary art typically inspires viewer uncertainty and aggravates speculation. In Cutler's case, however, we needn't feel stigmatized as philistines for speculating. Their perversity notwithstanding, Cutler's pictures are relatively good-natured. They also demonstrate a level of skill that, regardless of how relevant it is or is not to contemporary discourse, generally inspires viewer confidence and respect.
Having invoked it, Cutler does not betray or subvert our confidence. Another artist would implicate us as passive voyeurs, but she invites us to exercise our imaginations. Others might offer spectacle. Cutler creates opportunities for private delight.
Janet S. Tyson
Fort Worth, Texas