ARTFORUM: Caitlin Cherry on digital abstraction and Black femininity
— As told to Tina Rivers Ryan
Caitlin Cherry, Domain Vague (Art McGee), 2020, oil on canvas, 59 x 101''
Caitlin Cherry has always been interested in the weaponized circulation of images. At the Brooklyn Museum in 2013, she mounted her paintings on wooden catapults modeled after martial designs by Leonardo, as if they were about to be fired into the air. More recently, she has produced prismatic paintings from photos of Black femmes (including models, exotic dancers, porn actresses, rappers, and influencers) culled from social media. Inspired by the promotional posts of a Brooklyn cabaret, her newest works feature its servers and dancers in suggestive poses, flattened by delirious patterns and alphanumeric codes onto canvases with widescreen dimensions. Here, the slipperiness of digital images comes up against the slickness of oil paint, which she manipulates into a kind of filter that both obscures and refracts representations of Black femininity. A virtual presentation of Cherry’s new paintings and digital collages, entitled “Corps Sonore,” is currently viewable in the online viewing room of Los Angeles’s Luis De Jesus Gallery through August.
THE NEW PAINTINGS include an aurora pattern that was originally inspired by iridescence. I guess it’s not really a direct representation of iridescence, but more like how a 4-D rendering program registers iridescence. It looks a bit like a rainbow; it can also resemble chrome. I was interested in thinking about iridescence as something you see within the cabaret industry: I’m painting exotic dancers and bartenders who wear these outfits that are made of glittering, radiant materials. (They also wear a lot of fishnets; it’s really evil to paint fishnets, but they echo the aurora pattern, which similarly curves around the women.) But I also was interested in the aurora as a representation of what it feels like to fetishize a screen—when you touch a screen and the color starts separating and swirls around like colorful wood grain.
I am always trying to figure out how to reposition a viewer in relationship to the Black women that my work represents. With natural iridescence, in order to see the change of color, you have to move around, or the light has to change. I try to create a similar experience with my paintings, where there’s a different experience whether you’re up close or far away, almost as if I’m trying to figure out a way to disperse or reorient our society’s relationship to Black femininity—and a very specific type of Black femininity that is both underrepresented and a part of everyday aesthetics, to the point that it is almost never associated with high culture.
The paintings also mimic moiré patterns, which happen when two pattern systems can’t quite register on top of each other. I take the photographs I find and digitally over- and underexpose them; painting from these edits creates a little bit of an optical illusion that interrupts the pictorial space. I’m making images of women who are incredibly sexy and who work in an industry where they present their bodies to be commodified, so I always feel like I have to refuse that by obscuring or interrupting your viewing of the painting. (I tend to select heavily tattooed women to paint; the patterns end up getting confused, turning into a kind of camouflage, or another interruption.) The moiré pattern also represents the simultaneous over- and underexposure of these women. They’re systematically devalued in our society, but their aesthetics have filtered into popular beauty culture.
Caitlin Cherry, Euphraxia, 2020. il on canvas, 55 x 90''.
The new works all have this additional layer of large codes made of numbers and characters that are overlaid on top of everything else. My source materials have a lot of watermarks from photographers, but I also was thinking of captchas, which websites use to identify you as a human. In our society, Black women particularly have to authenticate themselves, to prove themselves. I want to deal with the tension between the figure of the partially human or subhuman—which Black femininity has always had to contend with—and the superhuman or posthuman, represented by the bodies of these Black women who modify themselves to participate in this industry.
These codes don’t just obscure; they also foreground the value of paintings as commodities that must be protected. (Because of their source images, the paintings often show women holding expensive liquor or stacks of cash, which is another way they point to the idea of value.) With their codes, these paintings can authenticate themselves; they’re already prepared for circulation. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do an installation where they can be shown not just on the walls, but on storage racks in vaults that are unlocked by their codes. I have always tried to figure out how to protect my art; I think the vaults are a little bit about me wanting to control the conditions under which my art is shown, seen, and stored.