Petra Cortright in front of one of her works. Picture / Stefan Simchowitz

Artist Petra Cortright's Digital Influence

Artist Petra Cortright talks Martha Stewart, Pinterest and emojis, ahead of her first exhibition in New Zealand

As time spent plugged into the digital world increasingly overtakes that spent in the real world, Californian artist Petra Cortright’s practice has remained surprisingly steadfast — spending time in front of her computer hunting for imagery and programs in the digital sphere. Her most recent works are digital paintings made in Photoshop from found images on Pinterest.

Dubbed as a leader in the Post-Internet art generation — and described as the “Monet of the 21st Century” — Petra first gained recognition a decade ago via YouTube videos that explored found software and self-portrait. Off the back of a solo presentation at Art Basel in Hong Kong with Societe Berlin gallery, Petra is headed to New Zealand for her show Running Neo-Geo Games Under Mame at City Gallery Wellington from April 8.

During Art Basel at Stella McCartney’s Hong Kong Landmark store, Petra also debuted a video collaboration with her artist husband Mark Horowitz. She has worked with Stella since 2014, after the designer discovered her, surprise, online.

Although Petra’s territory is the digital world, she can’t wait to get out and see the New Zealand landscape and is set to explore the South Island in a campervan during her visit. Her tramping gear is already shipped and waiting for her.

What are you looking forward to sharing with the New Zealand audience?
I think artists are really interested in the natural world and landscapes; I paint a lot of flowers. I haven’t been to New Zealand yet and I don’t know that many people from there, but to me it seems a very natural place. You have spectacular landscape — for me, growing up in California with the mountains and the ocean, that really deeply got into my work and into the paintings. On that level, it might be really cool to show in New Zealand.

My colour palette is definitely very California, because the light changes all over the world and light is something that painters really think about. California has this pink-orange light that you see in the movies a lot, which is really beautiful. I don’t know what colour the light is in New Zealand but I’m sure it’s different. I always think it’s interesting when you move California paintings into another country.

How has the use of technology and the internet changed from when you first began — and how has your work adapted?
That’s a good question... I don’t know if my work has evolved necessarily, I have specific working processes and I like to stick to them. The state of the internet right now is something that I’m struggling with, how modified everything has become. It’s very different than it was 10 years ago and I think even 10 years before that.

There are lots of artists who use the internet; there’s a certain group who are suspicious of the surveillance aspect, then there are those who are excited about the free sharing and information. The early internet had these promises of democracy and this free sharing. I think I’ve always been in the second category. I’m not trying to be a suspicious or cynical person. I’m always really excited about the potential of things and what they can be.

Social media is a huge conversation, but I stick to the way that I’ve always made work: to hunt around and have a lot of fun and find stuff that I didn’t really know necessarily. I like to work with things like found software, images and stuff that I just would have no idea about — like what I couldn’t really think up myself in the beginning. I like the hunt.

WATCH: Petra Cortright banksi unbrush ponitaeyel:

We’ve seen a massive rise in selfie culture, and flatlay images becoming a part of the way that people communicate through social media. What are your thoughts on this? And what social platforms do you enjoy using?
I think that selfie stuff is really interesting. I’m not really against or for it, it’s just a reality of what’s going on. There are some artists who are doing really interesting stuff with it. Sometimes my videos get put into the selfie category, I guess that’s okay. I’ve always really thought the videos especially were self-portrait.

For me the difference is that self-portrait deals a lot with background and the entire composition, the mood. Whereas a selfie is a little bit more restricting, it’s usually made on a mass produced technology, like an iPhone, and it’s about how far you can hold out your arm or a selfie stick.

The angles are very restricted. I’ve never really been into things that can be as constricted as that. Usually with a video work I need more space, I need to be able to put a camera far back in a room and really step back and react with the room.

Social media right now, there’s so few things that I really enjoy anymore. I like Pinterest because it’s just images. I don’t feel weird or bad when I use it — sometimes with other social platforms, you get this really weird feeling after.

This is something people have really come to notice now, people are more aware, they try to spend less time on stuff that doesn’t make them feel good. But it’s also really hard because it’s such a main way of communicating, so you have to find this balance. I like Twitter too; mainly for soccer stuff, I’m a big soccer fan.

When writers are looking to illustrate stories and sourcing stock images online, stereotypes often come up, particularly in the way woman are portrayed. What have you discovered on the internet in terms of source imagery that challenges gender stereotypes and how does this challenge you as a female artist?
It’s interesting because I mentioned Pinterest and I find Pinterest is a website that’s mainly targeted at women. It is kind of like for women to construct their dream life, which is kind of cute but it’s also kind of sad, depending how you want to think about it. I think that sometimes a lot of women’s dreams get trivialised. Pinterest is not necessarily a serious website, but I know that people get quite addicted to it and they just want to live in these fantasies.

But I think this is a very real thing for women. I work with a lot of the images from that site, so I feel like some of the images are loaded in terms of that.

I’ll work with really benign images, like an image of a kitchen, because I’m really just looking for composition, colour or texture so it doesn’t really matter about the content. I paint in Photoshop which is also an interesting software if you think about that a lot of photo retouching of women happens in Photoshop. Gender isn’t the main driving force behind my work but it comes into it in weird ways like this.

It’s hard for me not to think about the fact that I’m using dream retouching software to make paintings out of women’s dream kitchens. I guess I like that, I think it’s kind of fun to use things in a way that they’re not supposed to be used.

Also the way that I work is pretty technical, it’s really specific to me. It’s not like a classic painting process of any kind – which I think is a very male thing, to be very technical. But I’ve done it in my own way, so it’s so proprietary to me that I wouldn’t really know how to teach anyone else to do it.

It took years and years of spending a lot of time alone teaching myself these softwares. I did a little bit of school, I dropped out of two art schools so I don’t even have a degree and I just really fought to work in the way that I really wanted to work.

You and Stella McCartney both bring a sense of humour to your work. How did the working relationship begin, and what is it that appealed to you as an artist?
I asked her the same question a few years ago; I was like, ‘‘How did you find me?’’ She gave the most natural answer: ‘‘Oh, I just found you on the internet’’. I guess that makes sense but it’s so funny for someone who has spent so much of their life online. It just seemed really crazy because I’ve always really loved her.

Definitely one of the things that I like about her is the sense of humour that she has with her work. The clothes are, in a way, very technical, in the sense of the tailoring; the clothes are incredibly intelligent. A garment may seem like it’s not going to work, then you put it on and there’s this secret tailoring that makes you look totally incredible. It’s so considered.

It’s been easy to work with her, she really understands that when she hires an artist, it’s not like with commercial things. I’ve experienced in the past on a smaller level, people will hire you but they really just want to hire a designer or an ad agency. They’re like, “Can you change this and this and this”, but that never happens with Stella. She really understands that what she wants are art videos — she already does advertising, this is different.

WATCH: Petra and Marc for Stella McCartney:

You've just returned from presenting a solo presentation at Art Basel in Hong Kong with Societe Berlin; and you also collaborated with your artist husband Mark Horowitz for Stella McCartney during Art Basel. What were both experiences like?
Hong Kong was a really intense city, I definitely felt like I didn’t have enough time to see it. Art fairs are usually really hectic and they take up so much energy and time. I want to go back so I can have more time to walk around. The video that Marc and I made was really fun, and it was the first time that we’ve ever collaborated together so that was a little bit… it’s interesting when artists work together for the first time. Especially if you’re married, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. But it was totally fine and it was really fun and I think it was a really good mix of both of our styles.

The exhibition was great, the booth was great, and I love the gallery that I work with. It’s a Berlin-based gallery Societe, and I was just really happy with everything. Art shows, they’re just so crazy, there’s so much going on because it’s a big show. I’ve never had a solo booth in an art fair before, but it’s just like having a show with a hundred other shows going on right next to it. It’s just a booth in a big convention centre, so it’s a really interesting way to think about art. But it’s cool ... it’s just really intense.

WATCH: Stella McCartney's Fall 2017 Show

You’re a big Martha Stewart fan. What is it about her that you love and how has she inspired your work?
It’s definitely no secret, I always talk about her. I’ve been a big fan for so long. Our wedding in 2014 got into Martha Stewart Weddings which I was so thrilled about. I’ve been subscribing to her magazine since I was about 15. 

If you look at the magazine, the images are essentially modern and domestic still lifes. In that sense they’re more accessible than something really fancy. It’s this very American thing. It’s related to Pinterest too — this total fantasy thing. No one can be “Martha Stewart”, including Martha Stewart — she’ll tell you that she is, but you know she has her flaws just like anyone else.

Maybe it’s really American, this idea that you can be someone you’re not. It’s kind of cool to at least try. There’s something nice in at least trying to be a little bit different; not than who you are but to improve things.

For me, there are all these really heavy ideas wrapped up in it, this lifestyle idea. But from an aesthetic standpoint, the magazine has always been really beautiful; the way that they photograph flowers or food and the way they display things. It really reminds me of still life: if you look at old Dutch masters, the photographs are very related to it, they just have more modern elements going on.

Looking at imagery like this indirectly makes me want to make work on paintings; way more than looking at Art Forum. Every time I look at Art Forum it makes me not want to make art. Looking at other art is not a direct influence for me.

Do you use emojis personally? What’s your favourite?
It’s really funny, there have been quite a lot of descriptions of my work that say I’ve used emojis, which is not true. I’ve never painted or used emoji — I was really into 90s emoticons, which are on my website. But emojis are something very different; that’s a smartphone thing in the smartphone era.

Sometimes when you make technology-based work, people will loosely use these terms like, “oh emoji, emoticon …”, but I’m kind of a nerd, so I’m like, I’ve never used emojis in my work. But who cares, it’s not really that big a deal. I love using them in personal communication.

That’s why I really loved emoticons; even text-based ones, pre-smartphone, that was really the only way to get across irony. You could say something really mean on a chat and then put a smiley face after it and then people would get that you’re really being sarcastic or ironic.

They’re actually incredibly important in communication. Emojis on the other hand, I think they mean different things to different people. Sometimes I really like them and sometimes I kind of hate them because I feel like I don’t know what’s going on. Someone will put like a really random one at the end of a sentence and you don’t know if they’re trying to be funny or if they think that’s cute — I feel like they have mixed messages.

Which one do I use the most? I’m always a fan of the bouquet of flowers. It’s pretty classic, and I feel like that goes with my work. It’s congratulatory and cute but the meaning can’t be misconstrued too much with that one.

WATCH: Stella McCartney by Petra Cortright:

Your work relies heavily on the digital space but it’s still physically demanding. What challenges do you face physically when creating an artwork?
I don’t work every day because I don’t like to sit in front of a computer every day. I’ve noticed that more and more, with the rise of smartphones, I’m a bit nostalgic for the time when you did sit down to use the internet, you were logged in and you would sit down for a few hours and it was very concentrated work in a way. You knew that you couldn’t get that information once you left that chair.

With that in mind, that’s kind of the idea of how I like to use the computer. I realised that I like to sit down, especially when I make work. If I want to have a painting day, I try to do a really long day of 10 or 12 hours, just sitting there and painting.

But just because it’s easier for me, physically it doesn’t feel great to do that. If I have an idea in the morning and I know that I want to paint, I’ll just try to get that idea out and paint until I drop. It’s quite efficient because I work on this one big file all day and then variations of that file; it becomes a whole series of work. Every brushstroke that you use is on its own separate layer; it’s great because then you can go back and edit later.

Petra Cortright's, 2016, and Novelty-Quotes WEN russin Stephen Baxter adopted..., 2016. Pictures / Courtesy Tristian Koenig, Melbourne

You prefer to work alone and with little planning. Are there times when you’re really surprised at what comes into your mind when you allow yourself to be so open to colour, space and imagery?
That’s the main way that I’ve always worked. I work in this intuitive way and that’s what keeps it fun for me, because I surprise myself a lot. What I’ve found is that if I tried to plan, anything I would see in my head I would try to recreate but it would always fall short of what I was envisioning. When I would try to work like that, I would be constantly disappointing myself. But if I don’t think that way and try to build something that I don’t know exactly what it is, then I’m constantly surprising myself, which gives me the energy to keep doing it.

I like making a painting with nothing on the line: there’s nothing, no expectations and there’s such a freedom in that. It’s really what keeps it fun for me, I would just get too bored otherwise.

There’s a trance-like quality to your work — obviously each interpretation is unique to the viewer, but it still seems to be a mesmerising experience. Why do you think that is?
I just make stuff that I want to look at, so I’m still even a little bit surprised that anyone else wants to look at it too. But that’s something that I love about art. I do try to make the work somewhat accessible, that’s important to me.

I do, at the end of the day, want to be making beautiful things. Beauty is something that I’m really interested in — it’s this thing that’s really hard, almost impossible to define but it’s so universal. I also just wanted to be contributing something positive to the world. There’s so many different types of art, you know art can be political or conceptual. But I’ve always just wanted to take this very simple route that deals with beauty at the end of the day.

I’m always so complimented if anyone wants to look at something for any amount of time. Especially with the attention spans of people these days, you can’t expect too much. There’s simply just too much information and stimuli in the world, especially online.

I understood that if you’re posting work online, you can’t really ask too much of people. I wanted to make it really quick: if you can’t enjoy something in two seconds, it’s not going to stick. That’s just what you have to do online to have any kind of interaction with people.

• Petra Cortright, Running Neo-Geo Games Under Mame, April 8-August 13, City Gallery Wellington.

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