In 2007, Petra Cortright, then a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate student at Parsons, bought a cheap webcam and created her first video work, titled, appropriately, Vvebcam. In the video, which lasts just under two minutes, Cortright sits in front of the camera with a disaffected gaze while a series of kitschy animations—default effects that came with the webcam software—pass across the screen, all set to a pulsing ambient soundtrack. She then uploaded the video to YouTube, appended an absurd litany of SEO-friendly tags, and watched as comments from bewildered viewers streamed in. Cortright quickly became one of the more celebrated members of a diffuse circle of artists and writers—often lumped together today under the contentious heading “post-internet”—who explored the vernacular of internet culture, harnessing the potential of newly launched social media platforms to provide both a means of distribution and a context for their work.
Cortright still makes digital videos, GIFs, and other works that live primarily online. But over the past few years, she has increasingly turned her attention to gallery-bound pieces that she refers to as paintings: frenetic digital collages printed on various supports—silk, plexiglass, aluminum, linen—and hung on the wall. Each object begins with what Cortright calls the “mother file,” an accumulation of hundreds of Photoshop layers comprising fragments of images found online and simulated painterly marks created with digital brush tools. Some combination of these layers is selected and compressed to create each print.
Cortright’s second solo exhibition at Foxy Production, “Human sheep brain ‘alice in wonderland’ Americana” —its title suggesting file extensions or random strings of search keywords—featured five of these works, all large-scale and horizontal in format. The works recycle a number of conventional painterly tropes, depicting idyllic landscapes and pretty flowers overlaid with swooping gestural abstractions. As is often mentioned by the artist, and especially her gallerists, a key point of reference is the glittering light and visible brushwork of Impressionism. The nod to Monet is most explicit in a work at the exhibition’s entrance, Phat Betty roadrocket_Miss_geroMegasonic (2017), a photographic seascape stretching across three panels, dotted with loosely sketched pink waterlilies and slashing strokes of color. Another work, Sxtuka programowania TA6078 upgrade (2017), depicts reflections on the surface of a body of water, with an ethereal field of blue streaked with white and punctuated by translucent layers of pink-orange and faux-impastoed flowers. Institut->uncut peace since projects freshman (2017) is more chaotic, with hints of water barely visible under a dense accumulation of black scribbles and floating flowers. On a screen, these works convincingly approximate painterly facture; looking at the uniform, textureless surfaces and preprogrammed “brushstrokes” in person, the illusion falls apart.
“I’ve tried regular painting. I hated it,” Cortright said in a 2015 interview with ARTnews. “It’s really slow and I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world. You can’t copy and paste or undo.” Her computer-made versions merely simulate painting, using throwback genres and formats that attempt to convey some link to a grand tradition rather than meaningfully engaging with the question of how visual experience has been transformed by the internet and screens. More cynically, their large scale and nods to past masterpieces, and the frisson of novelty provided by her use of digital tools, make them ideally suited to an overheated market. Elsewhere, Cortright has created fascinating, hypnotic videos and animations based on her digital painting process, registering the “mother file” as a malleable archive of effects and images seamlessly layered according to the conventions of the screen. But whatever is interesting about these works is lost in the petrified versions on the wall.