Petra Cortright: Cam Worls
through April 7
UTA Artist Space, Los Angeles
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Petra Cortright belongs to a generation of video artists whose primary visual and aesthetic influences have not been cinema and performance art, but rather the internet and social media. It’s a key distinction, and the way Cortright does it offers the perfect case study for experiencing that evolution. These are DIY one-woman videos, on average two minutes in length, which she directs, stars in, and edits, using open-source screensaver software, green-screen projections, sexy avatars, image filters, Photoshop, and CGI landscapes and interiors. Her beguiling results vary from showers of rose petals to impertinent cat-masks, banana-munching sorority girls, rainbow dancers, awkward fashionistas, melancholy daydreamers, amateur emoters; crazy-eyed and pony-tailed; mirrored, pixelated, heat-seeking, replicated, erased.
Cortright pursues a hyper-mannerist model of post-Cindy Sherman self-portraiture that embraces the potential for both truth and fiction — in digital media generally, and online specifically. In fact one work in the show is saliently titled True Life: I’m a Selfie – (Fake True’s Negativity Remix). Her art examines the sociology of the selfie-channel as a cultural phenomenon, with special regard for feminist principles, and the situation of young women in the continuum of exploitation and empowerment that the internet represents. Her focus is on the dynamics of self-worth, identity, and popularity in that fraught context. So in a very literal sense, internet videos are both the material and the subject of her work; what better way to examine the impact of this newly minted part of our visual and sexual culture than in its own language, on its home turf, playing by its rules.
The first large-scale survey of Petra Cortright’s video work, UTA Artist Space shows a selection of 50 of videos made between 2007 and 2017, including 18 never before exhibited (if you don’t count her YouTube channel). Speaking of which, although the gallery exhibition is gorgeously installed, complete with furry beanbags for extended perusal, and a well-honed ambient soundtrack situation which is both lively and restrained, YouTube really is the natural habitat of this work. In its “through the looking glass” world, it can be impossible to determine precisely where genuine, heartfelt attempts at art end, and insightfully crafted satire begins. Navigating the neverending universe of makeup and hair how-to videos, confessional dating videos, softcore and sizzle-reel silliness, earnest expressions of talent and cruelly viral mishaps, both creates community and reinforces isolation. It’s also an artist’s wonderland of shape and color, sound and vision, facilitated by the amazing variety of low-fi filters and effects that turn any webcam into the early psychedelic glory days of MTV with the stroke of a key.
A somewhat jarring counterpart to the delightful survey of small-screen works, is the large-scale single channel projection mind_candy_pfaffs (2015, digital video, 2 hours). With a lot of full-on nudity, the video arrays a number of near life-size stripper avatars from a commercial software program, against a green-screen background that remains blank. It is feminist irony writ large. By contrast even the flirtiest and most vanity-driven of the short videos seem modest and sweet. The truth is it’s very uncomfortable, the sort of thing that can make a viewer feel a bit dirty, turned on, grossed out, a little sad, and somehow guilty for taking a picture even though the women are not only not there, but not even real. Showing that more difficult work on its own in a project room is aesthetically and sonically efficient, but also narratively engaged as a formal element; it belongs in a back room, to be first glimpsed, then furtively entered, then fled. It sparks a sort of Camille Paglia-style semiotic inner struggle; it’s easier just to return to the trippy, fully-clothed dance party happening in the main room. And that’s what it is out there, if YouTube were a place, evoking its choreographed simultaneity, and the appeal of its short-attention span eye candy — each slice of which contains in itself a multitude of comments on the kaleidoscopically tragic public-spectacle world of online living.