Petra Cortright Is the Monet of the 21st Century

Claude Monet is said to have famously proclaimed, “I must have flowers, always, and always.”

  • Photo by Stefan Simchowitz, 2016.

    Photo by Stefan Simchowitz, 2016.

Petra Cortright, the 29-year-old Californian who has emerged from the art world’s post-internet sensationalism of the mid-2000s, shares this affinity with the founder of Impressionism. And beyond botanicals, her current practice is increasingly aligned with Impressionist ideas, but for the 21st-century set. While Monet and his male counterparts reflected on the experience of seeing in late 19th-century France, Cortright does just this in the present moment, reflecting on the digital landscape.

Her most recent works, now on view in concurrent exhibitions at San Francisco’s Ever Gold [Projects] and Berlin’s Société, are evidence of this: digital paintings filled with flowers and water lilies that are instinctively reminiscent of Monet. Both shows illuminate Cortright’s multi-pronged process. She begins by sourcing imagery online, employing a sort of digital impasto technique to make what she calls “a mother file,” which she then manipulates and prints onto various substrates—such as aluminum panels, sheets of linen, rag paper—which are layered to create the final painting, varying in opacity and translucency. “Each layer represents a painting permutation, making the combinations nearly infinite,” Cortright tells me. And as was the case with Impressionism, visible brushstrokes are a vital element of her new work. “I want the viewer to see the same brush strokes in the different versions and on the different substrates,” she explains. “All the physical pieces are unique, but there are deep elements of a digital process that I would never want to hide or remove—instead they are celebrated.”

Rather than painting en plein air, as was the Impressionist way, Cortright works doggedly indoors, online, in prolonged sessions that are physically challenging. Whereas Monet spent his days ensconced in lush blooms and greenery, Cortright’s garden is the internet; she observes it, not critically, but to capture fleeting changes in color, the effects of moving interfaces, and the backlight of screens. “I wear gamer glasses when I paint, because I paint in sessions of about 12 hours at a time,” she explains. “I always need to flip them up to check colors as I go, because they make everything yellow and block the blue.” At Ever Gold [Projects], works such as deicideCHEMICAL_records.tbl (2015) elucidate her rich sensibility for light. 

  • Petra Cortright, deicideCHEMICAL_records.tbl, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Ever Gold [Projects].

    Petra Cortright, deicideCHEMICAL_records.tbl, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and Ever Gold [Projects].

Cortright likes for her works to evidence their making. “I like to ‘show,’ not ‘tell,’” she explains. Alongside her paintings, Cortright has started to create videos that came about as a direct result of wanting to reveal more about her working method, and now exist as standalone pieces.

Among the breadth of artists working with digital media, looking to expose its problematic nature—the existential crisis that ensues from hours spent surfing—Cortright sets herself apart by introducing a different way of seeing the online environment, which is focused on feeling and vertiginous beauty. “I don’t ‘think’ when I paint. I actively try not to. I’ve found thinking tends to destroy a lot of the fun for me,” she says. “I’m going to just start telling people I make dumb shit and I love it. The more I can tap into not thinking, the better the work gets.” This instinctual approach applies to the initial task of choosing the images that become her digital ‘paint.’ “I don’t think about the content of the images that I use, and it’s very hard to articulate—something will just catch my eye—it’s very intuitive.”

In previous works, Cortright has incorporated prevalent signs and symbols that refer to gender and beauty. Take for example her censored YouTube video Vvebcam (2007) or the animated virtual strippers in Vicky Deep in Spring Valley (2012) or “ily,” her 2015 show at Foxy Production for which she used greeting card software to create Plexiglas paintings. Cortright maintains that this proclivity is simply a result of her interest in art archetypes (such as landscapes), but they nonetheless evolve into a motif that speaks of the unconscious gender coding that is embedded in contemporary visual culture on the web. For example, at her Société exhibition, titled “die Rose,” Cortright evokes the semiotics of the rose—a motif steeped in symbolism throughout art history, and equally resonant today in tumblr culture among teenage girls.

At “Zero-Day Darling,” her solo show at Ever Gold [Projects], opening today, Cortright further illustrates how her materials and techniques consider visual cliches and how they unconsciously structure ways of seeing according to gender. “I like the idea of breaking down photos of dream kitchens, using software that was intended to retouch dream women,” Cortright says of the paintings she presents at Ever Gold [Projects], created with photoshop. “The end result is something that resembles nothing of either, a photo has been broken down so much that I’ve squished, smudged, smeared, copy and pasted, and broken it into a painting.” The finished painting inevitably reproduces the sense of the feminine archetype that Cortright started off with. Her purpose isn’t to undermine that archetype but rather to reconfigure it. “If anything, I’d like to create something neutral; however, my paintings always do come off very feminine, because I am a woman and there is something about that that is hard to remove from my aesthetic, which I’m fine with.”

  • Left: Petra Cortright, KRNKNKSSNBTRGVRGLCH_archive.LZ, 2015; Right: Petra Cortright, 1872HRPR’SWKLLPHNTRPBLCNS_failsafes.SAB, 2016. Images courtesy of the artist and Ever Gold [Projects].

    Left: Petra Cortright, KRNKNKSSNBTRGVRGLCH_archive.LZ, 2015; Right: Petra Cortright, 1872HRPR’SWKLLPHNTRPBLCNS_failsafes.SAB, 2016. Images courtesy of the artist and Ever Gold [Projects].

In this way, Cortright’s artmaking process is shaped by archetypal gender behaviours from the beginning. She paints with a rapid, action-style of painting, conventionally associated with masculinity. “I go really hard,” she tells me. “I’m not at all saying that women aren’t physically capable of making big paintings or anything like that—please let’s not even go there!” Cortright emphasizes. Yet she admits that she has scaled her work down physically to a size that she feels is manageable for her. It’s not only in her process that she considers the influence of gender.   

Cortright reflects on her position as a female artist in a male-dominated field. “I came up in such a boy’s club, surrounded by guys—technology-based work can be very guy-heavy,” she notes. “When I was at Parsons [in the Design and Technology BFA program], there were maybe three girls in the whole program, it was crazy.” She suggests that this gender bias may have been what led her to Pinterest, which became the source of the images she uses in her new paintings. “Pinterest is heavily geared towards women and I wanted to be using more of that imagery and energy, trying to make something that a lot of people really make fun of, things that are reductive to something that was additive.”

While gender is a complex issue, Cortright reiterates that the purpose of her art is more sensory than cerebral. The magic in her work is in making us see things we’ve seen a million times before as if we’re seeing them for the first time. “I’ve always preferred to have the core of the work be focused on much simpler, dumber, deeper things. Things like ‘beauty,’ things that are somehow so inherent to the entire human race, yet remain a very slippery thing to define.”


—Charlotte Jansen


“Die Rose” is on view at Société, Berlin, April 29–May 28, 2016.


“Zero-Day Darling” is on view at Ever Gold [Projects], San Francisco, May 13–July 16, 2016.