Petra Cortright: Digital artist inspired by kitchens and gardens

Petra Cortright in her studio. She can spend up to 12 hours at a time in her computer suite 'painting'.

Petra Cortright in her studio. She can spend up to 12 hours at a time in her computer suite 'painting'.

For up to 12 hours at a time, Petra Cortright ​retreats to her computer suite to "paint".

Beneath the majestic San Gabriel mountains, on the edge of Los Angeles, the digital artist's studio is a guest bedroom, her easel a computer and her paintbrush a mouse. The internet becomes her canvas as the 30-year-old trawls websites for colours and images she then turns into multi-layered works that have seen her described as the "Monet of the 21st century".

Monet famously proclaimed, "I must have flowers, always and always". Similarly, Cortright loves her garden beneath the mountains, and her digital paintings are filled with water lilies and other flowers.

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It was her videos that got her noticed about a decade ago. Her first one, VVEBCAM (2007), shows the artist gazing off camera as low-tech gifs of pizzas, chickens and lightning float around her. 

That video, and the works and digital paintings that followed, have taken the quirky Californian to places on the net and off it: to the prestigious 12th Biennale de Lyon and more recently to London, to work with the fashion designer Stella McCartney✓ on a series of videos which blur fashion and art.

Tropic Fish-invert-painting, 2017.
Petra Cortright, courtesy Tristian Koenig, Melbourne.

Tropic Fish-invert-painting, 2017.

Talking by Skype about visiting New Zealand to attend the opening of her Wellington City Gallery exhibition Running Neo-Geo Games Under Mame, she says the trip has been on her bucket list. While here, she and her husband, the artist Marc Horowitz, ✓ will hire a campervan and tramp around the South Island. "I'm so excited about being able to go," she smiles, eyes dazzling behind thick black-rimmed glasses.

Behind her computer screen, a stuffed chicken sits on the double bed, and one of her works hangs in the hallway. I ask her about the comparison with Monet and she smiles, her soft blonde bob shaking.

"I love Monet. Who doesn't like Monet, come on?

Autumn Forest-with_painted_background, 2017.
Petra Cortright, courtesy Tristian Koenig, Melbourne.

Autumn Forest-with_painted_background, 2017.

"It's absolutely flattering... But I'm really happy just trying to be Petra Cortright."

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And why wouldn't she be? Her latest piece sold fetched US$43,000 (NZ$61,000)  – five times more than a work that sold in 2013, a price which "blew her away".

Internet art has taken off in the past 15 years, but Cortright's videos and works are shown in gallery spaces too, so she is also described as a post-internet artist, someone who brings digital art into a physical space. Her paintings are classically beautiful.

Describing herself as "a kid in a candy store", she uses Pinterest and Google images as her paint pots, along with travel blogs on unprotected websites. Breaking the images down and blurring, smudging and manipulating them, she then prints them onto linen or paper to create the final painting.

"Working with computers is so natural to me. I've always tried to see the positive aspects of digital life. I'm drawn to digital stuff because I know how to manipulate it so well. It's very fluid.

"A whole show can come out of one day."

City Gallery curator Aaron Lister says: "What I like about the work we are showing, which is tied into the language of painting, is where does painting start or end? She's a painter who never touches paint, or holds a brush. 

"A lot of people will say this isn't a painting. But is painting an idea, or a material? It makes you rethink what defines painting, what defines art and how can a digital existence shift those terms, which is so relevant."

Cortright grew up in Santa Barbara and it was natural that she would become an artist; her mother was an oil painter and her father a master printer and sculptor. Her father passed away of melanoma when she was just 4 years old, and many of his sculptures fill her home today.

She attended two art schools, including the prestigious Parsons New School of Design in New York✓, but she dropped out of each, reflecting today that she was "a terrible, bratty, horrible student".

She rebelled against the navel-gazing, academic, and pretentious art world: "I hated all the talking about the work. I thought it was just a waste of time for me. I didn't understand why we needed to talk so much. No-one was making things. I just didn't want any of that pretentious stuff, and my work to be affected by that.

"I think the work is better the less self-aware it is. I try to be a self-aware person, but I don't want that in my work."

But art school did set her on her current path. A big moment came in 2013, when McCartney flew the artist to London to embark on their first video collaboration. At the time, McCartney, an art collector, raved that Cortright "represents the next-generation Stella girl to me in every way".

Cortright smiles into her webcam, remembering the moment when McCartney designed her wedding dress three years ago. "Stella is the sweetest person, she's so down to earth. We talked about doing something really natural. She would send some clothes and see what happens. "

That project turned into more, and the artist has not long finished another McCartney collaboration, this time with Horowitz. Cortright wore the designer's spring collection, her husband donning Stella McCartney menswear. Moving in front of a live webcam, they also shot footage on Horowitz's old VHS, with his studio as a backdrop.

It's there, in Horowitz's light-filled studio at one end of their Altadena ✓garden, that her husband paints and "waits for things to dry". 

"It's just gorgeous," Cortright says. "But it's messy to me, and there are chemicals. I just have such a digital brain, you know. When something is on my computer I feel very confident to work with it."

Surprisingly, perhaps, one of her biggest sources of inspiration is the American domestic goddess Martha Stewart. Cortright pores over issues of Stewart's magazine, and recently bought copies stretching back to the mid-90s.

She describes the photographed dishes and kitchen objects as "beautiful modern still lifes". "People often don't take things that are for women seriously, but I take these magazines very seriously. They're very painterly.

"I'm interested in very classical ideas about art and beauty. I think that beauty is a main driving force in my work. I love trying to create something beautiful. If something is really beautiful to me, it makes me really happy, and it's fulfilling to be able to create beautiful things. 

"It's a very honourable pursuit."

* Petra Cortright: Running Neo-Geo Games Under Mame, April 8-August 13, City Gallery, Wellington. Free entry.







 - Stuff


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