New York

Amy Cutler

Not so long ago, Amy Cutler’s drawings would have been unlikely to appear in an art gallery, at least one that called itself contemporary; they would have been classified as illustrational and she would have been told to find a good children’s-book publisher. These fine-tuned narrative images of slightly impossible undertakings, quasi-Edwardian in manner, seem to speak out of fairy tale and dream to anyone whose imagination when young was fed by stories of magic, by Edith Nesbit and Kenneth Grahame and perhaps especially Hans Christian Andersen, whose fantasies always seem to clothe or bandage a hard armature of suffering and cold. The emotional realities in Cutler’s pictures, similarly, seem often to arise from duress: flight, toil, constraint. This inner trouble, though, is camouflaged by the pleasurable precision of her style and the oddity of her imagination.

Alterations, 2007, is Cutler’s first sculpture, and it is remarkably well realized. A large wooden table stands in a darkened room. On its top, closely spaced around the edge, a gathering of women in white, each maybe three inches high, sit on stools wrapped in braided rope, the ensemble being cast in Hydrocal. They pursue a shared endeavor of unknown purpose: Each woman holds her hands in front of her, making her wrists the winding posts for a real string that weaves lengthily between and among them like an infinitely complex game of cat’s cradle. Does the string have an end? Actually it seems to have many—or rather, it has many beginnings but no clear conclusion: The lines wound by the figures in the council-like array on the table all begin on the floor, where a second group of women—or perhaps girls?—sit and lie in a scattered formation. The legs of each of these women are united, mermaidlike, in a kind of cocoon or chrysalis or papoose—not piscine, though, but woven, and unraveling from its base a cord that the girl then takes up and unreels, feeding it to her counterpart on the table above, where it is absorbed into the labyrinth they are making together.

Imagine that, instead of being figural, each point in this composition were some abstract geometry—a cylinder, say, in, why not, bronze. That would still be a pretty interesting sculpture, in its balance of linear and solid, pedestal and floor, regular and random, centrifugal and centripetal. If I feel a desire to look at Alterations formally, though, that is probably in reaction to the work’s overloaded yet still quite mysterious narrative, and to the distance between Cutler’s art and the conceptual tenets of artmaking since the ’60s against which she has clearly rebelled. And I actually doubt that Cutler began with ideas about pedestal and floor; she probably began with an image, a story, scene, or situation that she then figured out how to realize. It is as story that her work needs to be addressed.

And what is the story here? Impossible to say, but it is richly associative. The spinning or weaving of a thread or cloth, a web or a net, by women, is an ancient image in psyche and memory. One thinks, for example, of the three fates, the Moirae of Greek and the Norns of Nordic mythology, who spin, measure, and cut the thread of each human life. Or of Penelope and her always unfinished tapestry; or of Ariadne, who threaded the labyrinth. Penelope leads to ideas of women’s labor: The tabletop group may be inspired by the American quilting bee of colonial times and onward, though Cutler gives it supernatural gravity and weight. From here another thread leads to Cutler’s postfeminist generation, and to the address of “women’s work” by artists like Elaine Reichek and Ann Hamilton. And then there is a psychological and bodily aspect, in the ambiguous relationship between the women on the table and those on the floor: mothers and children? Who nurtures whom? Do we get lost in the net, the maze, that the women weave, or is it the matrix that produces us? Cutler has asked similar questions in her drawings, but this sculptural environment immerses us more fully in her world.

David Frankel