New York

Amy Cutler

The women in Amy Cutler's world don't have it easy. Two especially surly specimens, umbrellas strapped to their heads, rest from a jousting match on goats; tiny red puncture wounds mar the combatants' sweaters (Umbrage, 2001). Elsewhere a platoon of girls one-ups the tractor-pull-with-teeth trick, using their outrageously long braids to drag an entire farmhouse off its moorings—in a snowstorm, no less (Traction, 2002). In the more than three dozen works that constituted her first solo show in New York, Cutler demonstrated a seemingly boundless imagination for surrealistic plights and sadistic feats. The drawings and paintings on paper and wood have the fanciful aspect of children's storybook illustrations but are subverted by a hint of something darker, often violent.

While Cutler's cast includes some Edwardian ladies and a few guys, it's dominated by women and girls of sturdy country stock, with ruddy cheeks and mostly sour or resigned expressions. All act out scenes from folktales of the artist's own idiosyncratic making. Lily, 2001, seems to illustrate a kind of creation myth: A bewitched farmer's wife got stuck in a pond, her skirt floated up around her, and that's how the first lily pad came to be. In fact there are quite a number of raised or billowing skirts showing off solid legs. It's hardly provocative, but rather perversely folksy: The skirts transform into tents, the aforementioned lily pad, or, in Navigation, 2001, a sail for a woman on skates gliding across a pond. Sweeper, 2001, features an elegant lady with broom arms and dustpan feet, hiding dirt beneath her dress; and in Marisol, 2001, a nineteenth-century hoopskirt becomes a perch for a small flock of birds.

Birds and braids, too, play key roles in Cutler's iconography. Despite being precariously strung between two trees by her ankles, the girl in Genara, 2001, calmly offers her long, coiled braid as a bird's nest. The protagonist of Helena, 2001, one foot lashed to a tree, sadly contemplates a canary on her finger, an ax lying forebodingly next to her other hand. The artist also has a penchant for substituting birdhouses and other inanimate objects for human heads. One girl's noggin is a giant flame burning from her wick neck; in Sweetie, Sweetie, 2001, twins with luscious chocolate cakes for heads gouge at each other with silverware. Another girl waves a badminton racket at her own head as it orbits her pole neck, tetherball style.

In its illustrative technique and deployment of humor and violence to ambiguous ends, Cutler's work recalls that of another young artist, Marcel Dzama. But while Dzama's drawings have a chic, spare Jazz Age aesthetic and often an overtly sexual component, Cutler's highly detailed narratives borrow from early Italian Renaissance painting and Indian miniatures (small emblems are painted on the frames of one series of paintings, as in the marginalia of illuminated manuscripts) and are mostly un-erotic, despite their dreamy bizarreness. Cutler also seems to delight in the history of fashion, judging from her renderings of exquisite nineteenth-century getups and attention to fabric patterns and oddly stylish footwear.

It's impossible to pin down Cutler's aim beyond the creation of a unique, rather bleak dream universe ruled by absurdities. While there's a feminist undercurrent to many of the works—Well Bred, 2002, for instance, portrays a wan girl who's literally coltish, given her horse legs—Cutler doesn't subscribe to any one ideology or worldview; that would only limit the wealth of mysteries and humor that makes her art as a whole so engaging.

Julie Caniglia