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Soft Paintings, Hard Women

Amy Cutler's bizarre, delicate paintings are an unsettling kind of folksy. We talked to the internationally acclaimed, Brooklyn-based artist about goats, anxiety dreams, and "women's work."
"Tiger Mending," Amy Cutler. All images courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

The women in Amy Cutler's pictures are getting on with it. They work away, a little down at mouth perhaps, industrious and absorbed in the task at hand. But the tasks Cutler sets her characters, even if they have the trappings of traditional handiwork, are anything but ordinary. Cutler's women mend the bellies of tigers with needle and thread, weave their own hair into rope, or iron each other flat. There's time, of course, for the odd bit of revelry: You'll also catch these girls riding goats while jousting with black umbrellas. Men are conspicuously absent.


Amy Cutler's world of women—miniature, delicate, laden with both humor and anxiety—has brought the Brooklyn-based artist international acclaim. Cutler works across a range of media but is best known for her exquisite drawings and gouache paintings depicting female figures performing tasks at once mundane and fantastical. Striking the balance between the strange and the familiar, the pictures work like modern fairytales to convey the complexities of womanhood. Bodies sometimes morph into the tools of the tasks they are used to perform—a woman's feet become shears in Garnering (2006), her feet oars for a boat in Row (2002). These details feed the imagination and provoke questions about the roles being played out in these stories. Are we looking at trapped domestic drudges or resourceful heroines? The women at work in Cutler's pictures certainly come across as members of a common tribe, laboring alongside each other in tranquil solidarity. In this world at least, it seems the women can, or must, do everything for themselves.

"Umbrage," 2001

BROADLY: I know that sometimes your images are triggered by something you hear in the news. What kinds of stories grab you?
Amy Cutler: Scientific research and discoveries are always interesting. The ever-changing opinions on nutrition, transplants, animal migration, and global warming are a few of the topics that have found their way into my work.

I love to reinterpret the facts and cross reference things that may not seem directly related to the topic. Working with found information is often the starting point for many of my pieces.


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You depict women with animals, but rarely with men. What does the animal offer?
The animals often symbolize a more primal emotion of a situation. They have become a part of my visual lexicon. Certain animals represent very distinct traits and can amplify situations. For example, a goat tied to a woman's back—a goat is a stubborn animal that often searches for high ground. They are agile, spry, and can have a very solemn look about them. In this situation the animal is the embodiment of the woman's determination and strength. The type of goat can bring you even closer to the emotions by evoking a setting: the climate and region of the species. I usually create my own hybrids. I might use the horns of one animal and the fur of another. It's my world; I make the rules. But the collective feelings that we have towards these animals offer a very powerful insight. Without knowing much about the situation, viewers can apply a layer of emotions captured simply by the presence of a certain animal.

By omitting male figures, the focus stays on the women. I am creating scenarios that pertain to my experience as a woman. I feel an instant social dynamic is inferred when I include men.

"Saddlebacked," 2002

Do you think of your own work as a task related to the ones performed by the women in your pictures?
My work is an expression of my imagination. For the most part I seem to investigate my own neuroses and explore absurd situations for plausible explanations. The women in my drawings are usually performing a task for the collective good. They are part of a society. I'm not certain that I can say the same about my own work. In some way by creating images of these invented societies I'm bringing light to topics in our own.


Because you're using images as a narrative form, we can never tell if you're depicting a beginning, middle, or end. Is it important to you that the narratives you depict remain open-ended?
Yes, I want my work to offer a glimpse or a snapshot from a longer narrative that the viewer can enter at any point. When a story is too tightly packaged and presented I lose interest because there's no entry point. I think this is true for other forms of storytelling as well—I can be very absorbed by a book and put off reading the last chapters because I'm not ready for a conclusion. I enjoy a certain sense of ambiguity and surprise. I hope that my characters can continue their narrative beyond my set constraints.

The type of goat can bring you even closer to the emotions by evoking a setting.

One of the most rewarding things about presenting my work publicly is that each viewer brings their own experience to it. I put a lot of very personal stuff out there, but in no way do I expect my personal experience or rendition of the narrative to be accessible. I am very specific with the details I present to guide the viewer in a certain direction. I do not want to finish the narrative because then it would be over before it has even begun. There has to be room for interpretation or the work becomes stagnant and boring.

Often your settings are remote and untamed: a mountain, a forest. Why do you set the domestic in the wilderness?
It's a place of perpetual wonderment—it's nowhere and very specific at the same time. It's a place filled with contradictions. I feel at peace and very vulnerable when I'm surrounded by nature. It's just powerful. Combining the domestic and the wild is just another way of bringing opposites together to create a conversation.


"Cautionary Trail," 2005

Do you ever find that the psychological undercurrents of an image you've made reveal themselves only later?
Yes, this is often the case. I can begin painting with a particular intention but at a certain point I let go and let the work resolve itself. I put a lot of trust in this process. In hindsight I can see why I made certain choices, but during the process it's a bit of a mystery. Years will go by until the meaning reveals itself. Once the work has left the studio and I receive feedback, the meaning is again altered.

Some of your images are marked by a subtle kind of violence—women iron each other flat, a seated woman holds her own head in her lap. Where does this come from?
I never intend these things to be violent. I remove any hint of gore. Severed or disembodied heads are usually very animated and somehow able to exist on their own. I have had recurring dreams about removing my own head, eyes, and hands. These dreams are about anxiety. Several times I have misplaced my hands and eyes in dreams. I'm often just frustrated with myself in the same way you feel when you've misplaced your keys. There is no blood or pain, just pure frustration.

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The women are often figured in groups, working to a common purpose. Do you have a sense of what binds them?
Sometimes they are bound by struggle, and other times by triumph.


"Trial," 2004

You're known for small-scale, detailed work, in a light, washy medium—gouache. Do you ever feel that your own practice as an artist is limited by its possible interpretation as "women's work?"
Due to the gravity of the content, I don't think the scale or medium has affected the way my work is perceived. I'm not making cross-stitch samples. My trouble with being pigeonholed revolves around the work being on paper. My works are often referred to as "drawings," which is strange because they're painted. I also make drawings but with graphite. My work has never been about the mark or the medium. I'm focused on the message. Thinking about categories gets me nowhere.

The women in your pictures somehow put me in mind of the Greek Fates: spinning the threads of the future itself. I get the feeling that the task they perform is somehow essential—that something terrible would happen if they stopped.
I should really invest some time in Greek mythology. The tasks are essential and often drive the narrative and the composition. Without the concentration on the task the situation would unravel. I should examine this thought a bit more…maybe I could instigate some great calamity! I guess I'm too concentrated on a certain amount of serenity.

Often in your pictures, the body morphs into an implement of the task it performs: feet become shears, hands paddles. Women weave their own hair, becoming a kind of human loom. How are you thinking about the female body as a tool?
The functionality of the body as a tool is very intriguing. Often when I morph different body parts into beneficial tools, I'm thinking of form following function. I imagine that if an activity is repeated enough by a person, they become that function. Movement is innate and also learned. Our daily routines change our bodies and minds. They become meditations. I just finished a yearlong collaborative piece with a musician and a hairstylist. Have you ever seen a hairstylist sweep the floor? It's a beautiful dance. My own sweep, not so elegant.


"Siege," 2004

This exhibition is in February, at Leslie Tonkonow in New York. Tell me about the work you'll be showing.
We'll be presenting my first collaborative piece. It is an interactive sound installation. I collaborated with musician Emily Wells and hairstylist Adriana Papaleo. It involves 800 feet of braids and an interactive sound piece housed in a four foot tall hive of braids. Two multi-layered compositions are manipulated by turning 20 wooden branches that protrude from the hive. The compositions are heard from two headphones that are elaborately decorated with braids. To some degree the viewer is invited to inhabit one of my paintings.

It is a tactile experience of exploration. You are able to manipulate the panning and volume of each stem from the two compositions, isolating and unraveling many complex layers of music and conversation. You are invited to sit on stools that I made that come directly from my paintings. They are bundles of fabric tied with braided hair. The idea is that the braids are conduits for the sound like telephone wires. They originate from the hive and disappear into the walls, giving the illusion that the sound is being delivered from a far-off source.

How did this particular collaboration come about? Did working collaboratively change your process?
I was invited by SITE Santa Fe to create a collaborative piece for their 20th anniversary show. I immediately knew that I would have to try something new. I was given less then a year to complete the project and ship it off, so I had to move quickly towards a solution. Emily Wells and I have been friends for a long time and had talked about working together but never really came up with a plan—I brought up the idea, and she enthusiastically agreed. Emily introduced me to Adriana Papaleo. Adriana is an expert in all things involving hair and braids. Her way with hair is pretty close to magical.

It was an incredibly humbling experience to work with these two women. I had no idea what to expect, since my studio practice is a solitary one. I had never had the experience of sharing so much of my process. The three of us had a constant flow of text messages. Adriana had turned my studio into a rope factory (dream come true), and Emily was working in her studio. Somehow it all came together.