Petra Cortright Turns Stupid Stuff On The Internet Into Smart Art
Petra Cortright's career was launched with a webcam video. It shows her face, staring into the monitor, her eyes flicking back and forth like she's reading, while kitschy, cartoon effects — falling snowflakes, rotating pizza slices, kittens, UFOs, etc. — appear and disappear at random. The aesthetic is straight Snapchat, only Petra made the video way back in 2007. She published it to YouTube and spammed the keyword section with names of celebrities, sex-related stuff and other high interest search terms (Pokemon, Nascar, politics). Her SEO hijack worked. People watched it.
In 2013, she was selected to participate in the 2013 Frieze Art Fair in London, and produced a video self-portrait called Bridal Shower in which she ecstatically models a white dress and veil set to a soundtrack remixed from a lesbian porn trailer. Her real life wedding (in 2016, to artist Marc Horowitz) was featured in Martha Stewart Weddings.
Now 30 years old, Petra has built a career on engaging with what she describes as "things that other people consider are trash" — like DIY webcam videos, or the hyper-cute aesthetic typified by Lisa Frank, or a program called VirtuaGirl that turns your computer desktop into a stage for CGI strippers. "I've always had this really weird love for using stuff that people think is stupid," she explains, and cites Pinterest as a recent source of inspiration. "I love Pinterest because it's just super visual — this huge wall of images that you can go through real quick, with all these images competing to catch your eye." She loves it because it's basic, in the sense of pumpkin spice lattes and yoga pants, Bali holidays and granola recipes and suburban dream homes. "People kind of joke about it — Pinterest is probably looked down upon in terms of like, oh, it's just some stupid thing. Because people love to do that to women, when it's stuff that women like." But it's a very intense site because, she says, it's full of women's epic dreams.
Petra is part of the last generation who can remember a world before the internet. She grew up alongside it: from Instant Messenger to AOL to Livejournal to MySpace. "I was about ten years old when I got the internet, so the whole first ten years of my life — childhood, basically — there was no internet," she says. "I was born in 1986, so I'm right in that sweet spot of having a childhood where people weren't bullying you online." One of her first usernames included the numbers 312, the same numbers that appeared on her soccer jersey. On Livejournal, she was @petrapetrapetra. At 14, she got really into typography and liked the way the words "modern" and "blonde" looked next to each other. "So I was @modernblonde for a while," she says. "I thought that was, like, really classy."
While her work spans a multiplicity of mediums — painting, sculpture, film, video and GIFs, so name a few — her output is united by its complete lack of irony. "I personally find it very noble to make simple, beautiful work," she says. "My work is very sincere." This puts her at odds with the proliferation of cynical work being produced in the contemporary art scene. She sees the trend towards cynicism and irony as "a reflection of the fucked up world we live in right now" because art is always a reaction to what's happening in the world. "I guess my reaction is — I always try to add, if I can, more beauty if possible. If I'm doing that then I can feel good about the work."
She also wants to make other people feel good when they encounter her art. Earlier this year, she exhibited a collection of works under the title Zero-Day Darling, at San Francisco's Ever Gold [Projects]. The colour-saturated canvases featured hypnotic amalgams of Pinterest-sourced imagery — most recognisably flowers, but also visual fragments of other swatches, patterns and skin-tones that catch her eye. The results, blown up hotel lobby big, are very enjoyable to contemplate. "I try to make work that is less alienating to the general public," Petra explains. "I want it to be something that people can look at and respond to on a deeper level — at the most simple level of all, I just want people to be able to look at it and just like it because they think it looks good."
'Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola' (2015)
Her artistic process, however, is much more complicated. For an exhibition like Zero-Day Darling, each of the works is generated from a single Photoshop file — a file that contains more than 200 individual layers, which Petra terms the "mother file". Each different work is created via different combinations of hiding and revealing layers and applying different effects. She works in long, intensive sessions of about ten to 12 hours each, wearing gaming glasses to stop her eyes from getting strained. When she reaches a combination of layers and effects that feels right, she saves it. It's intensive, intuitive work. "Physically, it's not great," she says. "You don't feel great after 12 hours of sitting in front of the computer. It's like an emotional thing as well, like psychological and emotional. It zaps all the creative juices or something. I feel incredibly drained the next day, because all the ideas that I've been thinking about and kind of holding off on doing, I just implement them in one day and then the next day, everything is gone."