IN A PRACTICE THAT COMBINES painting, sculpture, and installation Caitlin Cherry (b.1987, Chicago, IL) addresses Black femininity filtered through the media on which it is viewed and consumed—the screens and interfaces of our phones and laptops. Cherry draws from traditions of art history through an exploration of the protocols of painting, integrating cultural theories on race, gender, class, and the impact of technologies. This online presentation of new paintings and digital collages by Caitlin Cherry, entitled Corps Sonore (“sonorous body”), is accompanied by an essay by artist, writer and media theorist Marisa Olson who expands upon the work.
The protagonists in Cherry’s paintings are Instagram influencers, glamour models, rappers, and exotic dancers—Black American femmes who play a dominant role in shaping popular culture without due credit. Cherry connects the commodification and desirability of the Black femme body to the seductiveness and circulation of paintings as a financial instrument in order to examine the similar ways we authenticate and secure each of them. Cherry selects her subjects, manipulates their image digitally, and paints them filtered through "sonorous" layers of radiating patterns of color and pulsing light that camouflage the models as a way to articulate how Black femininity is represented and, equally importantly, how her subjects represent themselves.
Caitlin Cherry received her MFA from Columbia University in 2012 and her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Providence College Galleries, Providence, RI (2018); Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA (2018); University Museum of Contemporary Art at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA (2017); The Brooklyn Museum (2013); and Fore (2012) at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Cherry is a recipient of a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship Residency (2016) and Leonore Annenberg Fellowship (2015), among other awards and honors.
"The protagonists in Cherry’s paintings are Instagram influencers, glamour models, rappers, and exotic dancers—Black American femmes who play a dominant role in shaping popular culture without due credit. Cherry connects the commodification and desirability of the Black femme body to the seductiveness and circulation of paintings as a financial instrument in order to examine the similar ways we authenticate and secure each of them. Cherry selects her subjects, manipulates their image digitally, and paints them filtered through “sonorous" layers of radiating patterns of color and pulsing light that camouflage the models as a way to articulate how Black femininity is represented and, equally importantly, how her subjects represent themselves."
TALES FROM THE KRYPTÓS | By Marisa Olson
Welcome to the Viewing Room! — Whatever that is!
The term enjoyed modest use a few years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but only in reference to webpages that functioned as analogues to exhibitions or documentation for a gallery’s artists. In 2019 many celebrated the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. For the entirety of these three decades, artists have been making work for and about the internet while galleries, institutions, curators, and critics have wrestled with the best ways to present and discuss this work—if not also to sell it. Debates on this topic have been surprisingly heated over the years and many artists have found their work pushed to the margins, at times, in makeshift sponsored lounges or viewing rooms reserved exclusively for new media, but also the sole, isolated domain for this artwork—siloing it from the more official grounds of the galleries in which “fine art” is exhibited. Ironically, internet art has experienced a resurgence during the pandemic as art spaces have been on lockdown and both presenters and viewers look to the internet as a site for creative consumption.
But those familiar with this ongoing dialogue have been careful to use this moment to propel the now thirty-something conversation about the relationship between art and the internet. When it comes to the topic of viewing rooms, the question for many is whether a viewing room is an exhibition or simply a continued analogue, akin to a live PDF.
Can there be a critical viewing room curatorial practice? A creative, self-reflexive activation of the online space by the artist, or even one that dares to venture into the truly virtual space that the notion of the viewing room only begins to hint at? How can we distinguish between art presented on the internet, art about the internet, and internet art, in the era of the viewing room?
"Corps Sonore is a high-speed connection to a private room within the Viewing Room, a kind of VIP lounge-cum-metaverse manifest for coded looking."
- Marisa Olson, Tales From the Kryptós
IF WE’VE LEARNED ANYTHING from the jewelry store scenes in rom-coms and prestige internet TV shows of late, the good stuff is always in the back. Why should galleries be any different? The showroom is, in essence, a lobby; a point of entry to making the connection that will get you into the back rooms or even the parties where you will eventually see the best work.
Caitlin Cherry‘s Viewing Room is a fast track to the VIP Lounge. Once you've obtained the address and secured admission, you'll see that this space floats like a secret mise-en-abyme for the Dark Web: Everything on the dark web is on the deep web, but not everything on the deep web is on the dark web. Corps Sonore is a high-speed connection to a private room within the viewing room, a kind of VIP lounge-cum-metaverse manifest for coded looking.
"The codes overlaid on the pictorial images refer to computer languages that link slick internet software interfaces to the physical hardware beneath, but these codes are also inspired by the image watermarks that photographers use to prevent copyright theft, captchas used for website security and authentication of users to weed out bots, and blockchain security hash functions that work as digital fingerprints. My new work connects the tensions between the painting as a high-value commodity, Black femmes and their current and historical overworking as sexual, productive and reproductive labor, and digital images circulating online and the security protocols that maintain their pixels as commodity objects. At any of these junctures, there are different security and cultural authentication measures required to maintain value down to the secret code you whisper to the bouncer to enter the VIP lounge."
- Caitlin Cherry
CODE IS A WORD WE MAY USE A LOT here so let’s begin our discussion by discussing code...
Cherry’s newest body of work continues her hyperchromatic portraits of black, female-identified dancers and Instagram models, with the addition of what one might consider a cryptic overlay: A watermark-looking sequence of numbers centered within the paintings. Given their contrast with her previous works and the lack of verbal clues, the images beg the question of their own meaning, even if they shuffle themselves into an imagined sequence. This is where the core concept of code starts to come into play.
Despite their wildly prismatic register and the abundance of details wherein body and landscape, foreground and background reach into each other, this ongoing series of portraits is marked by that classic burden of portraiture: The specter of realism. But when these beautiful women look back at their viewers from behind or under a sequence of digits, it is hard to forget that even our perception of realism is encoded by an experience of reality that is dominated by digital interfaces, digitally manipulated images, and digital experiences. (Afterall, where and how are you now viewing and reading this?)
IN THIS DIGITALLY-SATURATED REALITY, even the idea of a secret password spoken at the door of a private VIP lounge recalls the concept of digital passwords and PIN numbers. The online viewing room relies on the touchstone of a physical viewing room, just as social codes for behavior within these various IRL spaces are born out of the same social codes that get programmed into the software and protocols for the communication networks that support their online doppelgängers. — Phantasmic imprints of the coders and the infrastructure within which they work.
Anyone interested in code and representation today has probably found themselves within earshot of recent discussions of "crypto." To some this term connotes cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, while to others it may convey a general spirit of crypticness or even the process to which it generally refers: Cryptography, the encoding and decoding of codes themselves. But if we probe this term, we find that crypto is uncannily relevant to Cherry‘s cipher-bedazzled new paintings.
The root kryptós means secret or hidden.
"We who are Black women essentially transgress femininity and Blackness. Black women end up fused to an entirely new identity. Black womanhood is an unsolvable equation that reminds me of the “three-body problem” of physics, where three celestial bodies in trajectory with one another will forever have unpredictable paths. If two of these bodies find balance, the third will unexpectedly yank the first two out of sync, and their orbit becomes chaotic once again. The three bodies can easily be seen as metaphors for the identities of Blackness, womanhood, and class — identities that can never merge nor fully be oppositional or unified forces."
- Caitlin Cherry, Art 21 Pictorial Space X
SUDDENLY WE'RE BACK IN THE DOMAIN of the secret or hidden room. But just where is this room within a room within the deep’ish web of private viewing rooms? I like to imagine each of these paintings as fantasy islands in an archipelago named Kryptós. Each painting bears a code, a block in a chain of blocks, that make up the exhibition, linked together by a variety of associations, whether projected by the viewer, inherent in the subject, or known only to the artist.
And what is art, indeed who are artists, on Kryptós? Do we still have old school fantasies about the hand of the artist or even their preternatural powers? If there really was a Planet Krypton giving artists superhero creative skills, what would those be in a poststudio, postinternet, postperformance, postgenre, postconceptual, postbinary, postdiacritical world? Clearly Cherry has that x-ray vision that allows her to see rotations in the play of light imperceptible to the naked eye. Moreover, she has the alchemical ability to mix the colors of the digital realm from which she pulls much of her inspiration and apply them in a way that trolls the eye.
FOR ALL THE RECENT THINKPIECES on the relationship between Instagram and the art world, one thing that so often gets sidestepped is the impact of looking at art online. Of course there are considerations of the differences between the way that an image reads on a screen versus IRL (although Cherry‘s work is in a sense pre-filtered, and can thus be trusted to embody at least some degree of digital verité), but where the limitations of small-square and pixelated modes of viewing might fall short, others are already shopping for the experience of sharing this new acquisition online. A more interesting line of thinking would be to consider the impacts of this constant surfing of digital images on the way that we even begin to read paintings like Cherry's, in any space.
Given her virtuosa deployment of chiaroscuro against the veil of a hypercolor web of pulsing hotspots, the theme of color certainly jumps out as a primary element in the work. But how do we even understand color? Do we compare it to the flora and fauna of nature? And again, are those things we’ve seen IRL or are these psychic imprints derived from photos or other media? So many of the references that we have for understanding what even constitutes primary or tertiary colors, the way that light moves in interior spaces, or the very concept of iridescence is mediated by digital tools and processes. We see images that have been taken with digital cameras and printed on digital presses, or circulated online and viewed on digital devices. Returning to this concept of codes, this digital mediation is core to the perception of color insofar as analog print processes have one formula for the CMYK composition of colors, whereas in the digital context there are six-digit codes (hexadecimal triplets to be precise) that move us from RGB to HTML. Your peacock feather DODGERBLUE and DEEPPINK manicure are really #1E90FF and #FF1493. So could today’s painting be cryptography?
"Caitlin Cherry’s growing invaluability to the art world should come as no surprise; her commitment to black female subjectivity places the oft-imitated but systematically dismissed aesthetics of hip-hop hustle front and center, posing a real threat to the sleepy status quo we've come to expect from genre figuration. Smart, subversive, and incontrovertibly sexy, Cherry's pieces hum with radioactive irreverence, transforming viewers into beholders with the flick of a brush."
- Torey Akers, Artspace
I'VE ALWAYS HAD A THING for media specificity. What difference does it make to render an image or tell a story in a painting versus a photo, a film versus a song? Likewise, I'm a glutton for double entendres and wordplay—if you've not already noticed. I like when one word has more than one applicable meaning in a moment, or when a meaning can be teased out in slippery combinations of words. We often look to blame our parents for our quirks, but in my case, I think it's fair to say that my father's career as a cryptographer, his fluency in nine languages, and his tendency to make some of the world's corniest puns rubbed off on me and even drove me to love books like Cryptonomicon, the epic cypherpunk tome by Neal Stephenson, a historical science fiction author over whom Cherry and I bonded early in our friendship. When my father confessed to me that he'd been working for a military intelligence unit and not teaching foreign languages, as I'd grown up believing, I asked him what he actually did all day at work. Like a character out of one of Stephenson's books, he told me that he constantly monitored signals, like a person trained to stare at static on a TV screen and pick out occasional images. In his case, he might hear constant sequences of numbers and need to quickly decipher signal versus noise.
"An LCD screen is visually immaculate. However, one can break its simulation and reveal its inner world by using a digital camera to take a photo of the screen; the product reveals a representation of a representation. The image degrades into a pattern of streaks that interrupts the image like a digital water ripple. This moiré pattern occurs when the scanning pattern recognition in the camera is misaligned by the pattern of liquid crystals on the screen; liquid crystals are hybrids between solid and fluid states of matter. With oil paint, I render this digital misunderstanding as dark and light bands that veil the primary composition of the painting and create an overlaid secondary composition. The paintings are made of two palettes, of simultaneous over- and underexposure: the metaphor of the plight of Black women in mass media.”
- Caitlin Cherry, Art 21 Pictorial Space X
Digital images, particularly images optimized for the internet, are often "lossy copies" that provide the least information needed to discern a legible image. In other cases, static or white noise is added to create the illusion of a more complex image, perhaps a nuanced greyscale or a blended gradient. This image processing technique, known as dithering, was ironically first tested using a Playboy centerfold photo as a sample. In fact, this was not the last time centerfolds became the primary material in such research. (An essay for another day.)
IN THE END, THE QUESTION may not be what do the codes in Cherry’s paintings mean, but how do they mean.
Maybe it's the intense viscerality of viewing them at all, but when looking at these liquid crystal, brightly solarized paintings we might have called ‘hyperreal’ in one epoch, it’s not hard to project one's self into imagined virtual spaces in which we can interact with her dreamgirls and exchange more than fixed glances. But ultimately, this is more like a dream space, and as Freud told us, much like the words in a sentence or chapters of a book, fragments of a dream often do not add up until we’ve reached the end and look back. Meaning gets deferred.
IN THE CASE OF THESE CODES, it may not be a matter of simple mathematics. We may never know what they add up to or how to crack the code. There may be no cipher, no pure cache of meta-data revealing the real true time, place, and identity of the paintings’ contents. Thankfully, in art unlike in cryptocurrency, the artist has the power to reserve the right not only to hold the secrets or define their meaning, but also to change the rules of play or recode a script at any time. — Long after you’ve left the viewing room.
MARISA OLSON is an artist, writer, and media theorist who performs research in the history of technology and its cultural affects, particularly as they pertain to gender, political participation, and the environment. Her work has been presented by the Venice Biennale, Sao Paulo Biennial, Athens Biennale, Performa Biennial, Tate Modern + Liverpool, New Museum, Nam June Paik Museum among others. She is also a founding member of the Nasty Nets internet surf club, was the first editor and curator of Rhizome, and is the former Associate Director of SF Camerawork. She has curated projects at the New Museum, Guggenheim, SFMOMA, White Columns, Artists Space, and DiverseWorks; and served on many international advisory boards. Olson’s critical writing has appeared in Artforum, The Guardian, Wired, e-flux, Aperture, Flash Art, Afterimage, Mute, Surface, and numerous books in multiple languages. She was born in Germany and lives in New York.
MORE ARTICLES ABOUT CAITLIN CHERRY
"Pictoral SpaceX" by Caitlin Cherry for Art21 Magazine
"First published in 1985, the essay by Donna Haraway known as the “Cyborg Manifesto” made waves by criticizing the gender essentialism and identity politics of feminism and encouraging people to unite with others based on affinity. It proposes the symbol of the cyborg as a rejection of boundaries “unfaithful to their origins” and that this symbol can help to free people from racist, male-dominated capitalism.¹ The essay also purports that the “boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.”² ..."
Caitlin Cherry’s growing invaluability to the art world should come as no surprise; her commitment to black female subjectivity places the oft-imitated but systematically dismissed aesthetics of hip-hop hustle front and center, posing a real threat to the sleepy status quo we've come to expect from genre figuration. Smart, subversive, and incontrovertibly sexy, Cherry's pieces hum with radioactive irreverence, transforming viewers into beholders with the flick of a brush. Her blockbuster turns at the Brooklyn Museum, Performance Space in New York, and Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles have secured her spot as a needed, disruptive force in contemporary art dialogue.
I first came across Caitlin Cherry’s work through her excellent Instagram account, where she jokes about her art (one of her paintings mocks her for ripping off George Condo), posts pictures of her sphynx cat, and displays new work (recently, a tote bag emblazoned with a W-9 form). Her installation at New York’s Performance Space, A Wild Ass Beyond: ApocalypseRN, brings her into collaboration with Nora N. Khan, American Artist, and Sondra Perry. The artists have transformed the space into a projection of the world they will inhabit together after the apocalypse...