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Why Should a Webcam Plus a Woman Equal Sex? For Petra Cortright, It's Art

Last spring, the artist Petra Cortright had her first large-scale retrospective at UTA Artist Space, a venue in the rapidly gentrifying Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A. For the show, Cortright installed 50 flat-screen monitors in a tight line at eye level to show her webcam videos, which generally feature a single star—Cortright—playing around with rudimentary digital filters. In one, she wears a yellow dress as digital flames erupt from her body. In another, she tries to catch digital snowflakes on her tongue. The videos are by turns bewilderingly simple and dreamily complex. “Why should a webcam plus a woman equal sex?” she says when we meet up a month after the opening. “I felt like I could work with that idea but not make it literal. If you give all the answers, where’s the fun?”

At 31, Cortright is young for a survey (“Too young,” she told Vice in February), but she’s long been recognized as a pioneer in the field of what’s often called post-internet art, meaning work that deals, tangentially or directly, with the web. Her paintings—meticulously layered Photoshop files that incorporate images she finds online (roses, kitchens, beach scenes) with digital drawings (flowers, squiggles) printed on aluminum, silk, or flags—prompted the website Artsy to declare Cortright “the Monet of the 21st Century.” She participated in the Internet Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. In 2013, she was one of five artists commissioned by Frieze London to create a video work that aired on British TV. After Cortright watched hers, she promptly threw up. Since 2014, she’s also produced a series of videos for Stella McCartney’s clothing line; McCartney describes Cortright’s work as “mind-blowingly cool.” And this summer, three pieces of Cortright’s will be included in MCA Chicago’s ambitious exhibit I Was Raised on the Internet. “Petra is using new technologies to reinvent traditional mediums,” says the curator, Omar Kholeif. “She’s blurring together the virtual and the physical worlds.” Cortright lives in Altadena, California, just beneath the San Gabriel Mountains, and on the day I visit, she meets me at the door barefoot, wearing an embroidered Ace & Jig top and Japanese men’s pajama bottoms. She shows me around her backyard, which has a hot tub, a vegetable garden surrounded by copper wire (“I’m in a big battle with the slugs,” she says), and, at the far end, her husband Marc Horowitz’s painting studio. Then she brings me up to the space where she works, a neat room on the second floor of their house with a blue Oriental carpet and three computers on a desk.

Cortright immediately opens one of her paintings’ “mother files,” as she calls them, in Photoshop. As she begins pulling certain images to the fore and obscuring others, an ice cream cone appears, and then a shot of Kaia Gerber (she often draws her source material from Pinterest). With a few more clicks, these images are overlaid with a smattering of digitally drawn yellow flowers, and abruptly, the piece is gauzily beautiful. “My process is very joyful,” she says. “Poor Marc—he has to go through some dark shit every time. It’s like he’s a Calvinist—salvation through work. I couldn’t be more opposite. I’ve had to play down how easy it is for me at times, like with collectors.”

The oldest daughter of two artists (her father died of skin cancer when she was four), Cortright speaks with a stop-and-go cadence and projects a wide-open, otherworldly energy, like she’s governed by slightly different laws than the rest of us. She grew up in Santa Barbara playing soccer seriously—she was on an Olympic development team—then turned down a full ride to go to California College of the Arts instead. She later transferred to New York’s Parsons, where in 2007 she posted her first video, Vvebcam, on YouTube. Made in just a few minutes, it shows Cortright staring blankly toward a webcam while emojis of pizza slices, stars, and, at one point, a ladybug float across the screen.

It was hypnotic and a little silly, “but people were weirdly really into it,” Cortright says. The arts nonprofit Rhizome selected the video for its online Net Art Anthology in March, noting that “her passive surveillance of her videoscreen is mirrored by the [experience of the viewer], who is necessarily also consuming online content as they watch.” Brian Butler, cofounder of Cortright’s L.A. gallery, 1301PE, admits, “Some of [the videos] are really dumb. But I use that word in a positive way. They critique a whole series of ideas about self- identity.” Or as artist Paul Chan wrote in 2010, “What they represent is the experience of intellectual and aesthetic impoverishment, which perhaps is the truth of reality today.”

Cortright dropped out of Parsons in 2008. “Some of my teachers, I really thought they were idiots,” she says. And New York didn’t prove a good fit, either. “I’m not mentally tough enough,” she says (while she lived in the city, she dealt with toxic mold, a flood, a fire, and bedbugs). But soon after, she began selling her video work—she’d offer it in small editions, pricing it according to the number of views it got on YouTube—and she supported herself this way while she lived in Tokyo, Berlin, and then, finally, L.A. “My only redeeming quality is that even when I was failing at absolutely everything, I was still constantly making stuff,” she says. Most recently, one of her paintings sold for $65,000 at auction.

Cortright’s work is often read as feminist, but in general, she deflects questions about the thinking behind it. Her videos are lo-fi, she says, because people look better that way. She makes them because they’re fun, and she sells them because she can, a fact she still seems happily baffled by. For inspiration, she pages through Martha Stewart Living—the images evoke for her the calming beauty of classical still lifes. (Her wedding was featured in Martha Stewart Weddings, “though mainly because Stella designed the dress,” she says.) Or she looks to nature. “The garden and being outside, it’s very, very good for my work,” she says, which could be a winking nod to Monet. Ask her about this, though, and she just laughs: “Like, I love Monet; who doesn’t love Monet? But of course it’s ridiculous.”

“In a sense, she’s Warholian,” says Michael Gillespie, cofounder of Cortright’s New York City gallery, Foxy Production. By which he means that while the person Cortright presents herself as appears straightforward—when she’s not making art, she’s watching soccer, she says, or playing with her dogs—she can also be elusive. During the afternoon we spend together, for example, she twice describes herself as lazy. But in her studio, whenever one of her computer monitors goes to sleep, a screen saver appears that reads, in floating letters, “never stop working.”

When I ask Stefan Simchowitz, the polarizing, influential art collector who is one of Cortright’s biggest supporters, about this apparent disconnect, he responds by telling me about a dinner thrown by a wealthy prospective collector that he and Cortright attended. At one point, a guest asked Cortright what kind of work she made. “I paint flowers,” she said. “Why?” the guest asked. “Because they’re pretty, and I’m a girl,” she said. “Oh, wonderful!” the person said. “But they had no awareness of the spirit in which she did it,” Simchowitz says. “We just looked at each other and laughed. That’s Petra.”

Back in the studio, Cortright wakes up her monitor and shows me some images of her latest project, marble sculptures rendered from digital brushstrokes that look like enormous twists of soft-serve ice cream. “The Martha Stewart thing, I think it explains a lot about me,” she says. “She’s such a crazy example of a person who just created the life that she wanted. And I do really want it to be a valid, honorable thing, to try to make your own beautiful world.”

Then she brings me downstairs; through the library, where there’s a chessboard set up; through the kitchen, past a vase with red ranunculus and a carton of fresh eggs from the farmers’ market; to the living room, where there is wood paneling, a fireplace, and art all over the walls. We say good-bye, and Cortright, her Chihuahua tucked under her arm, disappears back into the house to watch soccer, battle the slugs, and make work in a frenzy while blasting music, enjoying it without muddying the waters by having to explain why.

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of ELLE.


JUL 10, 2018