by Cristina Ramos // Dec. 7, 2021
We sat down with American artist Petra Cortright on the occasion of her current exhibition ‘Baleaf Gys Akademiks Maamgic Brokig’ at Société Berlin. The exhibition presents a series of landscape paintings alongside a video piece, loosely inspired by heaven and hell, infused with the countryside of the American West and the laws of nature it contains. Provoking an ambiguous feeling in the viewer—perhaps pleasant, sometimes disturbing—Cortright builds infinite fantasy worlds within the digital paintings, employing found imagery from the net and image-editing software.
Cristina Ramos: Tell me about the process behind these works. What is entangled in the way you look at things, and in working with all the codified data with which we are surrounded?
Petra Cortright: I think my work is like a bit of an escape, even for me. A big motivation behind making paintings or anything visual has often just been because I wanted to have a nice desktop wallpaper for my computer. A lot of it is just for myself, or just building these environments to give my mind a break.
I need new brush strokes to blend, to make everything feel harmonious, and then sometimes I over paint it in a way that’s almost too smooth and too boring. So, then I take the paint strokes away, because almost every stroke is on its own a separate layer or groupings of things. The files are hundreds of layers, which is a weird way to use Photoshop. But it’s an amazing way to make a painting. When things start really looking complex and interesting, then I start saving versions of the painting. A series will have 50 or 100 paintings, and I can make 100 paintings in a day. They’re not all going to be ones that I print, some of them are very similar looking. I’ll go back and look at the big folder of images and start pulling the good ones.
CR: When thinking about landscape painting, to capture the ever-changing state of nature is a complicated undertaking. What is your experience achieving this through the use of digital tools? Do you think they allow for a sort of fluidity that dislocates reality in a way that is closer to how we perceive reality?
PC: Something really important to me is to incorporate really low-quality pieces into the paintings. The image quality is really smooth and HD, and then there’s just some stuff that has to be almost dirty, pixelated. It’s really important for the overall finished texture. It brings a lot of life into it. I control every alpha layer of every stroke, so you have different opacities in the printing process and the aluminum substrate can show through and bring light into the work. I do all these little tricks to end up with a more dynamic, physical work. With traditional painting, you can use different materials to get these effects.
I have flexibility and freedom with the aesthetics when I pull images from the internet, because I use a lot of found images. I actually even cut up other people’s paintings and put them in the last series. I’m of the mindset that borrowing things from the internet is a sign of respect and a positive thing. Any time I use anything, it’s because I love it so much. And then I think a lot about my hand. It can only produce the marks it can produce. But then when it comes to me adding my style to it, it’s kind of relaxing because I just can’t do anything other than the brushstrokes and follow the way that my hand uses the Wacom tablet. I make a lot of my own brushes in Photoshop. I have very specific ones saved for certain times, especially when the file gets heavier.
CR: Could you expand a little more about the works’ titles? As they come from the file’s name that you employed to build the paintings, could this language be a sort of digital debris?
PC: The titles are absolute digital debris, just like file names or titles from SEO lists. I don’t remember a single title of any painting I’ve ever made, but there might be a keyword that I might remember. It’s just the language of the internet. Some of the titles can be pretty abstract in themselves, and can mean different things to different people. It seems to make sense with the abstract paintings, as well.
CR: Where do the paintings in the exhibition stand in relation to the video work? Is there any feedback loop between them?
PC: To simplify it, if the paintings are like proper representations of heaven and hell, then the video is definitely meant to be limbo, purgatory, a kind of in-between. But, in some ways, everything ended up being in between, because I don’t want to take a stance in the paintings, either. I think they have elements of both.
The way that I like art to function is to give people a little bit of what they need and not to force my vision too much. I always want to allow space for people to draw their own conclusions.