New York

Amy Cutler, Berta, 2011, gouache on paper, 13 x 10 3/4". From the series “Brood,” 2011.

Amy Cutler, Berta, 2011, gouache on paper, 13 x 10 3/4". From the series “Brood,” 2011.

Amy Cutler

Amy Cutler, Berta, 2011, gouache on paper, 13 x 10 3/4". From the series “Brood,” 2011.

A few years back at this gallery, Amy Cutler showed a piece called Alterations, 2007, which departed obviously from the approach for which she was known in that it was an installation, a room-size sculpture. Cutler had made her name with fine-boned works on paper, many of them modest in size, in an illustrational style that for me recalled the best children’s books in its blend of representational carefulness and sometimes knife-sharp fantasy; now she spread out expansively to construct an elaborate spatial enigma, blending Americana with myth. But Alterations followed the earlier work in the quality of its imagery and, more specifically, in a particular feature of that imagery: Cutler’s habitual focus on women, often collectively engaged in some erratically legible activity.

In Cutler’s new work, a series of nineteen gouaches titled “Brood,” 2011, she makes another departure, but in the opposite direction from Alterations. Where that work expand-ed in size and physicality, these drawings narrow their focus: Gone are the suggestive scenarios of both the sculpture and the flat works (the women spinning the threads of fate in Alterations, or mending the lives of tigers, or carrying horses on their backs, in earlier drawings) in favor of head-and-shoulder portraits on unpainted grounds. In place of narrative, then, we have its condensation, the story a woman tells about her life through no more than her face. Here, too, is a reversal of Alterations, whose small Hydrocal figures were a good deal less individuated than the women Cutler painted. The new work is also a change from the drawings, for while the faces of those women were normally “about the size of a thumbprint,” Cutler writes in a statement on “Brood,” here they are “almost life size, animating the characters and making it feel as if they have stepped forward to greet the viewer.”

Heading first one way and then its opposite, Cutler seems commendably interested in trying to start anew more than once. To do so may be a particular pressure on an artist of her kind, whose images are so old-fashioned in appearance—images, too, in gouache, a form of watercolor, the longtime resort of the hobbyist. Does an ambitious artist paint primarily in gouache? Here, though, I think of the art historian Katy Siegel, in a discussion of the painter Laura Owens, noting an interest in what she calls “the minor mode,” such as watercolor, as a kind of political move among younger women artists. Elizabeth Peyton too would figure here; another fellow traveler might be Shahzia Sikander, in both the fineness of her hand and her interest in absorbing and reimagining a style from the past—in Sikander’s case, the Persian miniature. And this is not to mention Cutler’s enduring concentration on women, a politics in itself.

The women Cutler imagines in “Brood” are not young, not chic, not sleek of hair or glowing of skin, nor do they smile. Nor, probably, are they even American, given the names Cutler has bestowed on them: Alma, Elke, Elsa, Ingrid—names from middle Europe. If Cutler’s work is old-fashioned, so are her women: The floppy spotted bow at Aneliese’s throat speaks of nineteenth-century aestheticism, while Agnes’s lace collar, is, well, a lace collar. Lena, in a fur-trimmed brown coat, is turned out and proud, but Berta has tired rings under her eyes and Marika needs to do something about her hair. Despite Cutler’s claims that these women “greet the viewer,” only one woman’s eyes meet ours. Their patterned blouses and dresses, a different pattern for each character, give the works rhythm and texture, and each figure is finely rendered, on an almost pearlescent paper whose shine is part of the pictures’ life.

“At first,” Cutler writes, “I had the notion that they were all members of a religious sect or an organized labor union,” but they “protested against a uniform” and wound up much more various. And yet, or perhaps therefore, as the word brood implies, there’s collectivity here, and a worn solidarity—also facticity, a common refusal to be invisible. And brood of course is a pun, reminding me of a story by Colette, about a mother’s unease at seeing her daughter sewing: “She is silent, and she—why not write down the word that frightens me—she is thinking.”

David Frankel