A lone ship sails jerkily along the horizon of a bubbling seascape, accompanied by leaping dolphins and seaside sounds of squawking birds and crashing waves. However, the real action in Clouds Over the Ocean_ with_dark_painting (2017) is in the sky: a band of white clouds scrolls beneath a web of ominous dark brushstrokes. The storm is coming, but it might be more Super Mario Bros than J.M.W. Turner. Petra Cortright’s art operates at the interface of painting and digital technology. She mashes the noble historical pursuits of the medium with the kitschy aesthetics of the screensaver, opening up new possibilities in both. Cortright can dip into a clip-art folder for nature; she doesn’t have to lash herself to the mast of a ship.
Cortright’s new Flash-animation videos create looping, painted worlds. Literal fields of colour and form are inhabited by digital wildlife (a dolphin, a deer, chirping birds, a unicorn) who journey through and under gestural brushstrokes and transparency strips. Tropic Fish_Invert_Painting (2017) turns textbook abstraction into a fish tank housing aquatic life forms. The air bubbles, which noisily float through and oxygenate this underwater space, twist our normal understanding as to what constitutes the surface of a painting—here it is the top rather than the front. Painting is teeming with new life.
It’s tempting to see these iconoclastic new videos as Cortright’s reaction to the hyperbole surrounding her more formal digital paintings. Made entirely in Photoshop, using images, filters, and effects appropriated from online sources, these Web 2.0 paintings exist as digital files that can take both virtual and physical form, being both screen and gallery ready. Cortright has been called ‘the Monet of the twenty-first century’ and the latest in a lineage of ‘painters who don’t use a brush’ that has already stretched from Pollock to Frankenthaler to Klein to Richter. She’s also widely celebrated as a pioneer of ‘post-internet art’, a term that already feels as quaint as Impressionism, waiting to be shelved in a Taschen publication.
Cortright shrugs off these heavyweight associations and the burden of history that they place on her work, as though it singularly and heroically carries painting into the digital future. She describes herself in more modest terms, as a painter who uses the digital platforms and tools that structure her relationship to the world. She does this at a time when technology has transformed all aspects of the production, distribution, and reception of art. The old distinctions between online and offline, mediated and unmediated experience, have effectively collapsed, along with many of the established boundaries and definitions of art. Even abstraction—that once most rarified and ‘difficult’ mode of painting—now provides the comforting default background for millions of screensavers. Cortright and her ‘post-internet’ peers click past all that handwringing about the fate of painting in the digital era. It’s not just that they are still painting; they have found ways of reconnecting painting with the material conditions of everyday existence (conditions that have themselves irrevocably changed).
Cortright’s work is contemporary, yet she does not leave the past behind. She pushes the languages, forms, and histories of painting backwards and forwards, left and right. The paintings in this exhibition are collectively titled after an open-source emulator (MAME) which recreates the hardware of classic arcade games to make them playable on today’s personal computers, or even with recreated original hardware—joysticks, coin slots, and cabinets.
MAME provides a perfect metaphor for Cortright’s relationship to painting traditions and the gallery context. Her work reboots the past—turns it off and on again. In it, we can sense qualities, such as the pursuit of beauty and the desire for transcendence, that many feel art has lost. This explains her frequent comparison to past ‘great masters’, which is as much about seeing earlier artists afresh through Cortright as about her following in their wake. She shakes Monet’s water lilies back to life. Seurat’s pointillist dots become proto-pixels. Cortright doesn’t simply cut and paste from what has gone before, she remakes it on her own terms. In doing so, she breaks a key philosophical principle of MAME, which insists that games must be preserved in their original form, never upgraded to run faster or better.
Cortright shuns the material messiness of painting—stuff flung onto canvas—but is entangled with the messy histories of the medium and the conditions that produce and distribute it. While she does not use physical paint, brushes, or canvas, she does work out of a studio. At a time when many artists seek a post-studio or anti-studio way of working, to realign art with everyday life and politics, Cortright upholds a traditional idea of a studio practice.
Cortright had a studio before she even started painting. The YouTube-hosted webcam videos that first brought her art-world attention, in 2007, are all set in a small room, presumably a bedroom. In them, Cortright turns on her webcam and undertakes spontaneous, repetitive gestures augmented by the live effects and overlays of her webcam’s software. In when you walk through the storm (2009), she sits at a desk looking at the screen. She waves her hand in front of her face, activating a video effect that pixilates her features and makes the entire scene appear as though under water, anticipating Tropic Fish_Invert_Painting’s transformation of the screen into an aquarium. As Cortright made these videos over a number of years, the bedroom transitioned into a dedicated studio, but one that remains, according to Cortright, ‘just an extension of my life’. She currently works out of two spaces in her LA home that are set up as bedrooms.
Hosted on YouTube, these webcam videos hover somewhere between the camgirl/camboy aesthetic and the traditions of self-portraiture and body-based performance to camera made by the likes of Cindy Sherman. They also update classic images of modernist artists at work, exemplified by Hans Namuth’s much imitated, often parodied photographs and film of Jackson Pollock painting in his studio in East Hampton, New York, in 1950. Like Namuth’s images, Cortright’s videos are set within the physical and psychological space of the studio, but both the studio and the concept of artistic labour has changed. banksi unbrush ponitaeyel (2015) shows Cortright’s studio setup: an Alienware-brand computer sits on a desk in a small room. She uses a mouse to launch iTunes, starting the music that, in some videos, seems to direct the performance; in others, just plays in the background. The song spurs one of her own paintings to spout an arcing rainbow of colours into the studio. Unlike Namuth’s Pollock, who stands inside and as part of the floor-based painting he is working on, Cortright slumps in the corner of the studio and lets the painting perform her (though, while she is outside of the painting, she is within the performance, so both like and unlike Namuth’s Pollock). Where Pollock at least symbolically becomes one with his painting, Cortright knows and presents herself and her work through the mediating tools and effects of digital technology.
moodgoingup last november(2015) addresses the creative frustration of a studio practice—whether physical or digital. Cortright paces the studio followed by clouds of smoke generated by motion-tracking software. Her paint-splattered shirt belies the paint-less nature of her process. The shirt is actually a collaboration between artist Sterling Ruby and fashion designer Raf Simons, based on Pollock’s iconic splatters. No paint was spilled in the making of the shirt, the video, or any of Cortright’s paintings, which explode the old modernist association between studio, brushstroke, and the artist’s hand. Pollock was reportedly reluctant to continually get in and out of his paint-splattered boots to play the expressionist for Namuth. Cortright’s artistic despair is more self-aware, more overtly performed.
Pollock’s frustration with Namuth is assumed to be based on the intrusion of the camera (and, by extension, technology) into the sacred space of the studio. Cortright also closes her studio door, only to turn on the webcam. Her videos are broadcast via YouTube straight onto her audience’s screens. This is no portrait of the artist as a creative genius working away in the isolation of the studio. Cortright’s studio, like her art, is networked, accessible through multiple social-media platforms. In pre-social-media days, Cortright tagged her videos with an array of keyword-optimised search terms (in one case leading to a YouTube ban), and often responded directly to comments in discussion threads. Her persona is opensource, like the software she uses—available to all. She taught herself how to use her default painting tool of Photoshop with online tutorials. Cortright’s work is predominately made, presented, and disseminated through the net, and has even has its value assigned there. For her early exhibitions, Cortright used an algorithm to price her webcam videos based on quantity of YouTube views.
A photograph of Cortright taken by her agent Stefan Simchowitz provides another view into her studio practice as a digital painter. She sits at her desk, on an ergonomically-designed chair, in front of two screens. The webcam that records her videos is on top of one monitor. She wears gamer glasses to prevent the eye strain caused by intensive ‘internet binging’ that generates her painting process. This involves trawling image-generating sites such as Google Images and Pinterest, intuitively gathering and storing source material. In the photograph, Cortright holds a stylus and works from a Wacom tablet—the devices used to mix, rework, and break down the amassed images into the virtual palette of tones and textures she paints with. Cortright’s process results in a Photoshop ‘motherfile’ consisting of hundreds of fluid painterly layers, distinguished by subtle and infinite variations.
Simchowitz’s photograph shows a painting on the screen and another hanging on a wall—the states Cortright’s paintings shift between. Her files can be presented as ‘live’ paintings, slowly scrolling through their constitute layers on high-resolution screens, or as two-dimensional paintings outputted on a variety of substrates: silk, rag paper, aluminum, and linen. Whether static or fluid, these modes are iterations of the same process. Cortright’s choice of substrates is primarily concerned with their potential to hold light. Her paintings are designed to be illuminated from within, like a backlit screen. This is now the experience common to all art, which is more often seen on the screen than in a gallery.
Cortright’s two modes both constantly draw attention to—and defer attention from—their status as paintings. They offer a double take on the expectations and boundaries of the medium. Like all great double acts, it’s sometimes difficult to work out which mode is playing it straight and which is the foil. The ‘live’ paintings run over a period of around fifteen minutes (much longer than the webcam videos which consciously play to short online viewing patterns). These paintings make and unmake themselves before our eyes; highly finished they resist ever being finished. Forms, objects, and effects resolve and dissolve through the space and the time of the painting. In one sense, they are process-based. We follow the hand of the artist at work via stylus and track pad. Brushstrokes and other handmade marks like smudges and swipes are always visible. While the paintings are presented as or through video (or, at least, as a video file), this is where Cortright gets closest to emulating a traditional painting practice. Many of her peers have gone the opposite direction by fully automating the painting process through writing code or building machines that can paint without human intervention.
While in constant motion, the live paintings halt rather than quicken the experience of the medium. Painting and the painting process unfold in a slow, meditative fashion. These paintings take time from video, but offer something in return. They grant video and screen-based experience the embodied, sensorial capabilities of painting—qualities much moving-image work seeks to harness in an effort to break its association with the real.
Cortright relies on the craft skills of a master printer to translate her infinitely reproducible digital files into unique physical paintings. The process arrests the movement that animates the live paintings—at least in a literal sense. Calling these paintings stills or screengrabs downplays the internal dynamism and energy generated as overlaid and overlapping forms and gestures pile up and float over shimmering surfaces. This sense is amplified by the experience of viewing multiple paintings, capturing differing iterations of the originating digital file. These paintings aren’t stills, they are gestures or moments lifted from a multitude of infinitely variable possibilities. Both of Cortright’s painting modes always remain ‘live’, conspiring to reject the condition of stasis that much contemporary painting claims as its territory, in opposition to the unrelenting pace of digital existence.
Cortright’s Flash-animation videos of abstract aquariums and stormy seascapes forge a different relationship with her scavenged source material. They extend that ‘magic eye’ component of Cortright’s more formal paintings, where objects threaten to emerge or recede through various painterly and temporal layers. They also remind us that the refined, abstracted forms in those paintings started life as a collection of emojis, icons, memes, or Pinterest images—a vernacular digital language beyond Monet’s wildest dreams.
An earlier suite of Flash videos repurposed software from Virtuagirl.com that allows animated strippers to perform a looped dance on the user’s desktop. After making the purchase with a prepaid Discover card and storing the files on a ‘dirty’ computer to avoid catching viruses, Cortright created new environments for her purchased dancers to inhabit. They gyrate or pole dance within lush forest or desert settings, often with an incongruous supporting cast of animals or effects. The strippers’ stunted dance cycles highlight the condition of being both subject of and subject to technological desires and capabilities. Occasionally, a dancer leaps to the top of the screen, then falls, controlled by Cortright’s mouse via one of Virtuagirls’ interactive features. Cortright appropriates this tool for her own purposes, meeting the dancer’s performance with her own. Her book Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola compiles screenshots from a two-hour performance where Cortright manipulated backgrounds and effects while the strippers danced on her desktop. Her performance grants new life to these subjects by animating their backgrounds, rather than forcing them to play that role—over and over again.
Cortright uses outdated software and platforms to make new art. She forces digital technologies to work in ways that were never intended, often by exploiting their flaws, quirks or the uses they have been put to. There is fondness for the abandoned and faulty here, a nostalgia for the obsolete or the becoming obsolete. Cortright describes working with Flash and Action Script programs in these recent videos as ‘horrible … it’s as if the act of forcing this antiquated, temperamental technology to do something unexpected and still resonant … redeems the process somehow’. It’s much like what she does with this clunky, analogue thing called painting, culled from the abandonware site that is the history of art.
Published in PETRA CORTRIGHT: RUNNING NEO-GEO GAMES UNDER MAME, (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2017), 7–18.
 Charlotte Jansen, ‘Petra Cortright Is the Monet of the 21st Century’, Artsy Editorial, 13 May 2016; Sarah Gottesman, ‘6 Painting Techniques That Don’t Involve a Paintbrush’, Artsy, 16 September 2016.
 Other digitally-based artists have sought to redefine the concept of the studio for a time when art can be made from a laptop. In 2013, American artist Michael Manning made one series of works with and shown on the latest display models inside Microsoft stores. See http://www.themanningcompany.com/home/index.php/project/microsoft-store-paintings/.
 ‘Petra Cortright 4.0’, The Art Gorgeous, 26 July 2016, https://www.theartgorgeous.com/petra-cortright/.
 The description for VVEBCAM (2007) used 733 keywords, including: tits, vagina, sex, nude, boobs, san francisco, diego, jose, puto, taco bell, border patrol, mcdonalds, KFC, kentucky fried chicken, and trans fat. The video was banned by YouTube for ‘violating community standards’. See Ben Fino-Radin, ‘YouTube Censors Petra Cortright, but ‘VVEBCAM’ Lives on in the Rhizome ArtBase’, http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/dec/12/youtube-censors-petra-cortright/.
 Charlotte Jansen, ‘Petra Cortright Is the Monet of the 21st Century’, Artsy, 13 May 2016, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-petra-cortright-is-the-monet-of-the-21st-century.
 Petra Cortright, Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola (Rome: Nero Publishing, 2015).
 A. Will Brown, ‘Interview with Petra Cortright’, studiointernational.com, 2015, https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/petra-cortright-interview-women-in-a-digital-landscape