Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

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October 31-November 6, 2002


Brittle Women

Amy Cutler, <i>Dinner Party</i> (2002), 50 1/2 inches  

by 44 inches, gouache on paper.
Amy Cutler, Dinner Party (2002), 50 1/2 inches by 44 inches, gouache on paper.

Delightfully imaginative visions of feminine naiveté, cruelty and ambition flow through Brooklyn-based artist Amy Cutler’s new work, now on display in her first museum show, at the Project Space of the ICA. Drawn with colored pencils and gouache on white paper like children’s book illustrations, Cutler’s eight large drawings playfully toy with grimly serious emotions by employing a cast of female characters dressed in unusual outfits and engaged in bizarre activities.

There's a studied randomness to Cutler's surreal combinations of imagery, and no doubt when composing her costumes and props she carefully works from the details in historic sources like the 19th-century Godey's Lady's Book or the 18th-century Diderot's encyclopedia. The richness of historic detail is at odds with the post-modern flatness of the shadowless objects and the vast surrounding areas of white paper. Cutler devises her female characters like flat façades or props, just like the objects around them. Their bulges and folds -- resulting from their slumping or contorted poses -- are endearing and wonderfully unflattering in any traditional sense. These women and girls are like characters in a dream (unaware that they are imaginary), going about their business with teeth gritted or with dull, listless expressions.

One piece, Accommodation (39 by 29 3/4 inches), shows a woman standing alone, calmly and complacently, in a dress and low pumps (both fancy but dated) who possesses, instead of a head, a large blue birdhouse. It's a deluxe model, with nine tidy doors and perches, and three peaked roofs. Above the woman, a flock of a hundred or more tiny robins swoop downward in a giant tornado-like mass. Meanwhile, she waits, holding a small pot of water, with her head tilted back. In a similar fashion, the women in 4 Snowmen (22 by 30 inches) are also lost in a peculiar task. Here, attired in colorful babushkas and pea-green military-style coats, they soberly line up with their companions, partly melted snowmen dressed in men's shirts. One woman accompanies, instead of a snowman, a tub of water with a carrot floating in it. Both drawings pose the same question: Is this a kind and selfless act, or is it sheer stupidity? Cutler leaves us pondering this question and, with it, the uncomfortable parallels in our own lives.

Many of Cutler's drawings examine the complexity of the social connections (and emotional undercurrents) between women. Dinner Party (50 1/2 by 44 inches), for instance, shows the interaction of four women in elegant 18th-century ball gowns decorated with flounces, pleats and rosettes. Two of the women lunge at each other on top of a long dining table, and they wear, woven into their fancy hairdos, upside-down chairs with sharp implements lashed to their upright legs, such as a skewer, a fork or an assortment of bread and carving knives. Nearby, a third woman is assisting a fourth with the proper alignment of her chair. The dispassionate expressions on their faces don't betray any of their feelings about each other. Another piece, Umbrage (29 by 41 1/2 inches), depicts four women riding handsome spotted goats and engaged in a bizarre ritual. Like many of Cutler's figure groups, they wear matching outfits, in this case, plain blouses, spats, lederhosen and a headpiece with a black umbrella jutting out like a unicorn's horn. Although the scene is wildly amusing, it exposes complicated social relationships with a violent edge. These embattled women are covered with small puncture wounds -- relatively bloodless, just as they would be in real life.

All of these drawings, as well as the other work in the show, gracefully weave together the contradictions of women’s emotional lives and relationships with wit and humor. But the ideas in Cutler’s imaginative work are deadly serious. Like modern fairy tales, her drawings represent a hyperbolic expression of women’s fears, needs and anxieties. This is surprisingly complex and mature work from a 28-year-old artist -- just a few years out of art school -- and well worth contemplating.

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