By Marie Chatel
«Petra Cortright is the Monet of the 21st Century,» affirms Elephant Magazine’s editor-at-large Charlotte Jansen — reflecting on both the artist’s taste for landscape representation and her booming career with works that embrace both digital painting and the consumption of online performances through video-sharing media. Pioneer of post-internet art, American Petra Cortright (born 1986) gained recognition in 2007 when she had not even yet graduated from Parsons The School of Design, New York. Her works now show at venues like the Walker Art Center, MCA Chicago, the Whitechapel Gallery, and already see a sustainable secondary market at auctions — portrait of a determining novel figure of digital art.
It is with her YouTube video Vvebcam (2007) that Cortright first gained attention as a net.artist. As the title makes a little obvious, the artist filmed herself with a webcam staring at her screen. Unlike “Camgirls” of the time who interacted with the camera in quest for an appraisal their image, Cortright has no facial reaction or awareness of online viewers but focuses on her task, putting into motions some preset tools of the webcam, such as dancing pizzas, sitars, lightning bolts, kitties, and puppies.
A fair question to ask yourself would be “Is this Art?” or “Why did this get so much attention?” The answer to which is “It got banned from YouTube.” Not because of the video per se, but because of its tags which featured offensive keywords non-compliant to the service’s terms and conditions, and which pranked porn viewers and people googling “Paris Hilton” or “ESPN” in visiting her innocuous page. By optimizing search engine action, Cortright misused a vernacular online service and bent its rules. In doing so, she perfectly demonstrated what post-internet art is: a practice that is not limited to displaying art on the internet but also challenges the interface’s mode of functioning with the content it creates.
This episode influenced Cortright’s broader practice as an online performance artist, staging persona in a manner remindful of Marina Abramović. Starting with tools accessible to anyone — webcam, computer interface, and traditional techniques of online dissemination — she recorded herself completing everyday actions like kicking a ball, walking through her room or making a gown with towels in Bridal Shower (2013). Cortright also augmented her images with glitters, kitsch cascades, and other digital graphics.
Digital painting and Photoshop — which now constitutes most of Cortright’s work — further her questioning of what art can be done with readily accessible computer interfaces. For each representation, Cortright makes collages from images found online through Google Image and Pinterest, and which she superposes with simulated brushstrokes and painterly marks. The artist adds layers of computer-generated images together which she then moves around and triggers on/off to decide of a piece’s outlook. Conspicuously, Cortright refers to the initial project as a “mother file” from which she draws different combinations of layers to print on various supports: plexiglass, linen, aluminum, silk. As such, the artist explores the digital nature of her production, with an infinitely editable file on the one hand, and a unique physical object on the other.
In her paintings Cortright depicts idyllic landscapes with water sources and flowers that remind of Impressionists’ plein-air work s— a practice she mirrors when developing her designs in several consecutive hours. With regards to modern painting, Cortright’s rendering of light, textures and flat surfaces is also worth noting, as she overlays different qualities of brushwork. But while the visual initially appears on screen, when printed it gives viewers a false sense of impasto, confusing perceptions of what is digital and what is analog. The work also recycles ideas of Jackson Pollock’s action painting whose quick and gestural abstractions superbly adjust to computer-generated images, combining spontaneity with malleability, flexibility, and the reusability of gestures and splashes of virtual paint.