Petra Cortright | The Gentrification of the World Wide Web

The Californian artist on how the web has become a much less weird place

by Iona Goulder
Apr 8 2016, 8:22am

"I have a weird way of working,” says Petra Cortright, the Los Angeles-based digital artist. “It’s weird because in some instances I’m breaking down photos so much that they start to look like brush stokes, and every brush stroke is its own layer. And because it’s digital, every layer becomes its own work.”

Using Photoshop to create what she calls “mother files” Petra’s way of working involves scouring the internet for hours, sieving through photos, videos, gifs, memes, games, and porn waiting for something to catch her eye.

When something does, it’s metamorphosed into a large-scale work, like Vicky Deep in Spring Valley from Niki, Lucy, Lola, Viola (2013), which she showed at Depart Foundation in LA last summer. Using VirtuaGirl, a program with a Second Life aesthetic that sends strippers cascading across your screen, Cortright subverts an adolescent fantasy by recreating it over and over in a new (public) environment.

Photo: Stefan Simchowitz

The leap from online into physical work and then finally into bricks-and-mortar gallery, makes Petra’s art part of the Post-Internet genre. Internet appropriation forms the basis of the works in her latest exhibition, all_gold_everything opening at Société in Berlin at the end of the month.

Named after the 2 Chainz song she was listening to when she created the all_gold_everything mother file, it has hundreds of layers of imagery, cut, morphed and reworked, and eventually turned into large-scale paintings and video works. “The mother files are basically the archives of a massive internet binge,” adds Petra.

The exhibition at Société will be the first of two in Europe for Petra this year (she’s having a solo show at Karl Kostyal on Savile Row during Frieze in October). But for an artist who spends the majority of her time on the internet, with three billion other people, she’s incredibly shy about showing work. “It’s painful to stand next to it and show it to a bunch of other people,” Petra tells Amuse. “Even though I’ve been showing for a few years now, it’s hard.”

Photo: Stefan Simchowitz
Photo: Stefan Simchowitz

Petra describes herself as a “one man band” – someone who likes to work in solitary in a small room. Though Petra and her husband, the painter Marc Horowitz, share a sprawling studio in downtown LA she only occupies one room with her two computers.

“I’ve adapted to small spaces so much so that I can still only make my work from one little room,” she says. “Marc and I are buying a house with rose gardens, fruit trees and a studio at the back for him to work in. So soon I’ll be back to working in a small bedroom.”

It strikes me as symbolic that a digital artist like Petra should feel at home in a small room with the infinite online world that she finds comfort in just at her fingertips, with everyone else far away. “Everything I do is instinctive. I light a candle, make some tea and just go in the path that I want to go in for that day,” she says. When she feels the urge to paint or make a work it’s because she’s trying to recreate environments and bring to life the “weird places” she’s found online.

The online world Petra’s been bingeing on is also a rapidly changing one. Does the next generation of digital artists, responding to their own experiences of the online world as she has done, threaten the way she works and her staunchly Web 1.0 aesthetic?

“I’m trying to avoid becoming one of those people who complains about technology changing,” Petra answers. “I hate being dependent on one thing. As an artist there are always ways to accommodate your creativity, you just have to work it out.”

Photo: Stefan Simchowitz
Photo: Stefan Simchowitz

That said, Petra describes the internet as a less weird place now than it was. “I think the internet is becoming this really gentrified place. Today’s forms of social media feel more like people’s personal brands. Now it’s just people promoting their shit constantly and it makes stuff on the internet less weird. Everything feels more censored,” she says.

“I think other artists are responding to these new tools in some really interesting ways,” she says, recalling Amalia Ulman’s Instagram-meets-performance art series Excellences and Perfections (2014), a parade of carefully curated flower arrangements, groomed interiors and expensive lingerie with #simple and #cutegasm throughout, which captures the self-censorship in its entirety.

In all_gold_everything Petra describes a 12-foot wide triptych made from three pieces of painted aluminium, behind which there’s an ambient video of her making the work. “I’m trying to make living paintings through these ambient videos,” she says. Since it’s becoming harder and harder to move from well-curated feeds and an increasingly censored world online, Petra is just trying to help us all stay a bit weird.

Photo: Stefan Simchowitz

all_gold_everything at Société Berlin runs from 29 April to 27 May.