Can a Painting Not Have Fun?: Caitlin Cherry Interviewed by Zoe Dubno in BOMB Magazine

Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Dec 30, 2018 1:15AM

The New York-based artist discusses collaboration, deskilling, and life after the end of the world.

I first came across Caitlin Cherry’s work through her excellent Instagram account, where she jokes about her art (one of her paintings mocks her for ripping off George Condo), posts pictures of her sphynx cat, and displays new work (recently, a tote bag emblazoned with a W-9 form).

Her installation at New York’s Performance Space, A Wild Ass Beyond: ApocalypseRN, brings her into collaboration with Nora N. Khan, American Artist, and Sondra Perry. The artists have transformed the space into a projection of the world they will inhabit together after the apocalypse. Their trailer home is retrofitted with surveillance cameras, a faux stained-glass window, bunk beds, and a shared library that befits artists at the end of the world: survival manuals, art books, theory texts, monographs—among them, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, the anthropologist’s examination of the cross-contaminated conditions that the matsutake mushroom thrives under, and its parallels to the circumstance of inhabitants of the Anthropocene living among “capitalist ruins.” That book is also quoted in the show’s—co-written, of course—text. A video of the artists talking together is projected in the backyard, and copies of a collectively created zine are available throughout the exhibition. We opened our correspondence by considering this idea of cross-contamination.

—Zoe Dubno

Installation view of CAITLIN CHERRY: Dirtypower at Providence College Galleries. December 2, 2018 - March 5, 2019. Image Credit: Scott Alario.

Zoe Dubno Your show, and much of your art, explores cross-contamination. How does this concept function in an art context, particularly in a show that’s both cross-disciplinary and collaborative?

Caitlin Cherry This group show brought together four people with different practices, but our interest in technology and science fiction connected us. We are a self-organized collaborative unit of multi-disciplinary artists ready for whatever. In this collaboration, we cross-pollinate in ways beyond what a curator would foster—our casual conversations together inspired the work.

I also always have an anti-disciplinary philosophy, which is why there is a lot of cross-contamination in my practice. It is the most natural way for me to work. When I feel like I want to be involved in something that I’m not skilled at, I learn through committing fully to it, regardless of success or failure in the end. For most of my life I wanted to be a great painter, and as I gained proficiency in painting, I realized the goal in art is not about mastery of skills or being a technician or craftsman but more about building a vocabulary. My first medium was painting, but now it’s just a word in a language—anything is game to become art.

ZD You’ve spoken about “deskilling great institutions” and the differences between a dancer’s education and that of a painter. As a teacher, a professor of printmaking and painting, do you encourage your students to reconsider the siloed nature of arts education as well?

CC Institutions of all types are built on excluding populations. Art education institutions in particular should be questioned by their students, as what they teach may not be in the best interest of every student. Practical questions like, Who built the school buildings? should be considered. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to educate artists without asking them to consider where and when the art they make takes place.

Artists are in the business of questioning everything; they’re also people who are devalued and isolated in society. So when I talk about deskilling, it comes from a place of having an MFA from Columbia University and being an adjunct art professor rotating in many schools with varying philosophies. I find the idea of skill toxic due to the wide-ranging and sometimes random value system of art in 2018—although it has always been this way … I think about Manet’s Olympia and the Paris Salon in this regard. When I teach basic painting and drawing skills, I grit my teeth. I’m concerned about perpetuating the toxic idea that art is exclusively concerned with skill. In art education there are two ways of evaluating “good”: technical and conceptual development. Each student has to create their own equation of how to balance the two.

Deskilling can operate here as a way to productively reveal one’s personal politics and self-worth. Many people will never have access to the rigors or excess of a formal art education. So let’s call it, “Deploying a strategic mediocrity and leaving space for budding artists to figure how to learn on their own.” Art is a lifelong process of both learning and unlearning ideas that extends past one’s institutional education. Letting go from mastery is not failure but an opportunity to diversify one’s skill set in other media within or outside of art so that they can become a functioning member of society.

ZD Do you figure educating artists to be a part of your practice?

CC I do consider my work as a professor to be part of my practice. I have given performative lectures at conferences and at artist talks, which play with how I think the audience perceives me in a position of power and the expectations involved with it. I am constantly amazed at the potential for powerful people’s corruption— sometimes I feel I’m already corrupted because I have been trained as an artist in a formal way—but simultaneously I’m treated as an outsider as a black woman, and people fetishize where I come from. Teaching skepticism is my specialty.

Caitlin Cherry, "Corrupted Mind Palace (U H O H H O W U N F O R T U N A T E)," 2018, Oil on canvas, 57 x 101 in. Image courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

ZDYour paintings often don’t hang on walls. Your show Hero Safe at the Brooklyn Museum used da Vinci-inspired war machines to catapult works to the center of the museum. Your recent show at American Medium employed mechanical arms to make the paintings’ asses clap. What is the work of a painting to you? What is a sculpture?

CC I’m always thinking of different ways to display paintings. It’s been hard for me to just think of a painting as a “window into a world” when it is an object with a two-inch depth. In the Brooklyn Museum show, I treated stretched paintings as weapons to potentially be hurled, and I’ve suspended a painting in a laser security system, put a painting in the bottom of a swimming pool, had a mural-size painting strapped to a motorcycle. The history of my practice probably seems really kitschy and wild as fuck truncated into a sentence in that way. The paintings often maintain a traditional front and back orientation and are never altered from being a painting, meaning you see the stretcher bars, my signature, the hallmarks of a painting.

I’m not trying to push painting into sculpture; rather I want the illusion of pictorial space to be broken. I’m developing a world within a painting and a world outside of it, and that causes this tension. I’m not a traditional sculptor in the sense that I don’t build things, I don’t know materials like that, but I plan and organize painting installations which can take three or four times as long as the paintings take to make. I like that you phrase it as “the work of a painting” because the viewer approaches it with expectations. Hang a painting an inch higher or lower than the traditional center of the wall and it really plays with our bodily relationship to looking. We approach it expecting it to be easy, beautiful, an uninterrupted image.

Early on I defaced my own paintings by graffiti-ing them with spray paint after they were finished. It seemed like you were looking at two personalities at once on the canvas. I’ve matured a little and think defacement was a bit too expected of me and seemed anti-painting when I am very much a painter. But we have double vision with most things in the world: we look at a laptop screen and simultaneously view the room behind it. Why should we maintain this one-vision system with painting? Maybe I anthropomorphize the painting. As a lover of science fiction, I always think of these narratives like, What if a painting had autonomy and could look back at us? Or, What if the painting could actually be a functional tool or weapon? Maybe it has needs and wants greater than what we have given it.

Lately I’ve been questioning this idea of painting-as-a-window due to the rise of flat-screen HD television, LCD computer monitors, and laptops that move into use and then quickly into obsolescence. I think we have stronger relationships to screens than we do to windows now. So rather than seeing paintings as replacing windows, I’m replacing the screen with paintings on LCD mounts. On a dual mount like the one I used at American Medium, two paintings can be oriented in infinite combinations—it’s like they could be dancing. I’m painting these glamour models and so I thought, Make the painting clap. We just lived through this era of the twerk, so can a painting not have fun? It can get rough trying to involve painting in all sorts of politics … surveillance, critiques of capitalism. I had to take a moment to remember that questioning an institution is as simple as acknowledging that a painting is no longer a window, a painting is a screen. Those two worlds seem so far apart, but they’re not.

Caitlin Cherry with collaborators Nora N. Khan, American Artist, and Sondra Perry, A Wild Ass Beyond: Apocalypse RN, 2018. Installation view. Performance Space New York. Photo by Genevieve Hanson. Image courtesy of Performance Space New York.

ZD You’ve spoken about creating an art world security company that would “train museum guards and gallerists to be ready for certain [abstract] war scenarios,” a Blackwater for the art world. In the event of a catastrophe, can the art world serve as an organized system to defend itself? What do artists need to protect their work? Do art world players have consistent interests?

CC I call it the The Infinna Foundation—it’s a project that I’ll probably be developing forever. There never seems to be a right time or place for it to bloom. The project’s origins lie in my anxiety about the value of paintings and also in the double nature of protection—protecting assets is an essential function of capitalism, but protection is also necessary for baseline survival.

It’s interesting how a lot of dystopian narratives invoke art as a symbol of our lost wealth, civility, and humanity. In these disaster flicks, you’ll always see the iconic paintings being secured first in the crisis, the museums being locked down, the collections protected. When we talked about our installation for A Wild Beyond, I had to think about what would really happen if I was in survival mode. It’s likely I wouldn’t even make paintings for a long time because I would have to re-engineer the entire infrastructure of how I paint. I imagined myself searching for pigments, digging things out of the ground. As the installation stands at Performance Space, in this imagined future-past timeline, we try to figure a point of stability in this post-apocalyptic world—I’m a painter again and Nora [Khan] is firing ceramic totems in her kiln. I also hunt, grow mushrooms, and look out for threats.

When we did the research for A Wild Beyond, we looked into preppers. They occasionally had military backgrounds, but mostly they’re people who have anxiety about “othered” folks coming in and taking what they think is theirs. They believe these supposed incursions will trigger an apocalypse, so they gather guns and train for a war that may never come. Military contractors have turned that mentality into a business.Hito Steyerl does a great job of connecting the art world to war. What I do is smash them together and think of what this fictional, post-apocalyptic, militarized art world could be like. The Infinna Foundation was the original idea for the Brooklyn Museum show actually, and that led me to the security system work. The Infinna Foundation is essentially my take on an extremist prepper group/military contractor that would exist in and move us toward the decline of our society as we currently know it. The idea of a war-ready gallerist is that if shit hits the fan, you’ll have to use all the skills you’ve learned in this world to take into the next.

I doubt the art world can be organized, but it is small and tight-knit and has at least one common goal of protecting art. As gated communities have begun to hire private security forces, I could imagine this company starting off with more lighthearted intentions, specializing in complex museum or gallery security, something we can imagine already happening now. Then, by accident, its capabilities to link together the art world and supply mercenaries render it an organizing system in a moment of unrest, its mercenaries readied not for war but for protecting art. And as art’s value grows they’d need to beef up their presence and firepower as well. Eventually it would dissolve into class warfare. The Infinna Foundation is perhaps a prequel to A Wild Beyond. By the time of A Wild Beyond, we are looking to escape the ills of our society-past and be peaceful and communal, making art for ourselves and thriving in a simpler life.

Luis De Jesus Los Angeles