REVIEW: Petra Cortright: Pale Coil Cold Angel at Nahmad Projects

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We have fallen out of love with the internet. These days, journalistic allusions to the online world tend, more often than not, to be couched in terms of a vast and dangerous wasteland, where shadowy syndicates traffic private information and tub-thumping populists recruit at large. As David Patrikarakos wrote in the Times Literary Supplement this week, ‘The dream of a connected, transnational world – the information utopia – has given way to a more muddled web of mendacity, conflict and the anger of the mob.’[1]

It is refreshing, then, to encounter an artist for whom the internet is, first and foremost, a place of optimism, colour, and creative potential. The works of Petra Cortright, exhibited until July 20th at Nahmad Projects in Mayfair, explore a brave new world of imagery and form made possible by the proliferation of digital technologies in the last decade and a half. For Max, my gallery partner, Cortright’s large, neon-bright prints are exciting precisely because they ‘make a positive aesthetic statement within the vernacular of internet culture that is totally devoid of irony.’

 Cortright's  dss hack_“l’histoire de la sociologie”_sexual psychology  (2018) © Petra Cortright and Nahmad Projects

Cortright's dss hack_“l’histoire de la sociologie”_sexual psychology (2018) © Petra Cortright and Nahmad Projects

This isn’t to say that Cortright’s art is politically out of touch, noncommittal, or in any way disingenuous. On the contrary, she has in the past trained an uncompromising feminist spotlight on the seedier side of online life. Her 2015 exhibition Niki, lucy, Lola, Viola featured a series of repurposed ‘virtual strippers’ in video and gif format, thereby casting the internet as male libido run amok. At the same time, however, Cortright never loses sight of the internet’s utopian potential. Pale Coil Cold Angel is above all a celebration of the new aesthetic avenues that computer technology has opened up in the last fifteen years. As Cortright insists, ‘I've always felt that making something beautiful is a noble pursuit. I try to go towards it in my work… I'm much more interested in that than trying to make a meta-commentary about the state of reality.’[2]

Cortright’s single-minded pursuit of beauty – her ‘art for art’s sake’ attitude – is strongly in evidence throughout Pale Coil Cold Angel. The centrepiece of the show, a vast, flowery collage printed across four glossy aluminium panels, combines the bold brushstrokes of French Impressionism with the harsh angles and sudden geometries of the digital world. Here, Monet meets Photoshop, and the effect is thrilling – if somewhat hyperactive. Max tells me that Cortright is often compared to Monet: ‘They both interrogate perception and sight within their different paradigms. Monet concentrated on sunlight while Petra focuses on the blue light of our screens.’ 

Cortright’s early works, including the eerie, oddly compelling vvebcam (2007), took advantage of the alternative display spaces afforded by online platforms, but she has since shifted her attention towards the more conventional setting of the physical gallery. In You Are Here: Art After the Internet, Jennifer Chan writes that ‘even if net art’s original impetus was to create art outside of institutional control, new media artists today [i.e. post-internet artists] are re-prioritising the role of physical exhibitions as career moves and meeting grounds.’[3] This all starts to sound a bit cynical. Is post-internet art, as Chan implies, merely net art repackaged for the gallery or for sale? Walking around the small, sleek exhibition space at Nahmad Projects, it is hard to avoid the feeling that Cortright is laughing at us. What sort of person, after all, would buy an artwork with a name like 0-201-68897-2_sexcam_zpf zpe energy space time vacuum quantum fluctuations?

The exhibition suffers, moreover, from a paucity of material: the five prints on display, all of which depict calligraphic streaks superimposed upon washed-out tropical flowers, are not so much individual artworks as variations upon the same visual theme. Indeed, as Cortright has explained in interviews, each series of ‘paintings’ she produces is derived from a single ‘master file’ composed of various digital ingredients. While in theory this emphasis upon recycled elements raises interesting questions about the dynamism of post-internet art, in practice it renders Pale Coil Cold Angel a somewhat claustrophobic experience.

Three fascinating sculptures carved from white Carrara marble—the eponymous ‘pale coils’?—save the exhibition from monotony. These daringly streamlined studies in torsion, which for Max evoke the weight and purpose of classical statuary, lend presence to an otherwise ethereal collection of work. According to the Nahmad Projects website, ‘the sculptures are 2D digital brushstrokes extruded into 3D shapes, which the artist transfers to marble from their virtual existence.’[4] At Cortright’s command, the ‘cloud’ of the Internet has condensed into rainfall. This insistence upon the physicality of the virtual makes for a strange and arresting gallery visit; one which draws attention to the ever-growing disconnect between our online and offline lives. 

Pale Coil Cold Angel: Petra Cortright runs from 8 June to 20 July at Nahmad Projects.

[1] David Patrikarakos, ‘Depressive Hedonia’, Times Literary Supplement, 8 June 2018, p. 32. 

[2] Julia Gray, ‘Petra Cortright’s Decade of Digital Art’, Paper, 23 February 2018 <http://www.papermag.com/petra-cortright-retrospective-2538643973.html> [accessed 12 June 2018].

[3] Jennifer Chan, You Are Here: Art After the Internet (Manchester: Cornerhouse, 2014), ed. by Omar Kholeif, p. 183.

[4] Nahmad Projects <http://nahmadprojects.com/exhibition/pale-coil-cold-angel-petra-cortright/> [accessed 12 June 2018].

William Edwards