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Caitlin Cherry

Pace Live

Caitlin Cherry On Representations of Black Femininity and Digital Media

Interview with Claire Selvin
Published Sunday, Dec 19, 2021

This past fall, Pace Live presented Performance with Quaternion, a one-time event centering on artist Caitlin Cherry’s kinetic painting Quaternion (2021). The work was on view as part of the group exhibition Convergent Evolutions: The Conscious of Body Work at Pace Gallery in New York, and the live program featured music by Moor Mother and performances by dancers Vitche-Boul Ra, Daigi-Ann, and Ingrid Raphaël. In the following interview, which has been edited and condensed, Cherry discusses the inspirations behind Quaternion, the meanings and interpretations she drew from the live performance, and more.

Claire Selvin: Can you tell me about some of the subjects and themes you explore in your practice?

Caitlin Cherry: I consider my practice a combination of painting, sculpture, and installation. It's a sort of hybridity or tribridity that I've been working with for a while to try to deal with the limits of painting and realizing that sometimes some questions are better answered through other mediums. So, sculpture and installation have kind of supported my practice, especially over the last decade, for me to try to deal with some of the limits I see as inherent to a painting practice. A lot of my paintings tend to be figurative, and I am currently interested in tackling Black femininity, specifically as filtered through digital media. That takes place in all different forms, like how Black femmes are portrayed and in celebrity culture, on social media, through the physical digital tools that we see them through—computer screens, LCD screens, and phones—and how those devices also co-produce what I see as Black femininity. That manifests in how my paintings appear: in the color system that I use, which is very particular to my practice. People have described it as kaleidoscopic color, very saturated color that is not really painted in a naturalistic way. That's a way for me to try to talk about this digital experience and the phenomena of these devices, whether they are malfunctioning or working properly. How do I bring that technology into the story in a static image?

Sculpture and installation have always been armatures or supporting to the painting practice, and that is also me trying to figure out how to talk about the ways viewers relate to artwork in the gallery and how that is also very similar to how I feel we physically relate to these technologies: how we physically are looking at a painting on the wall and how to queer it or skew it is very jarring to the experience of viewing paintings traditionally. That's how I bring together those three different mediums.

CS: What were your inspirations for Quaternion, and can you tell me about some of the figures and abstractions in the work?

CC: I'm really interested in the interface of the LCD screen and its peculiarities. So, Quaternion features a large painting that is very layered. It's almost as if you can't quite see the boundaries between figures and their environment: is there an actual space that they all exist in? And that's just me using this patterning I've been doing for a few years now—it ends up becoming an abstracted representation of what I feel like pixels are within these LCD screens, almost like if you were to smush a screen and you start to see it ripple, like the sort of liquid crystals dissipating beyond the bodies in the painting. Sometimes it looks like wings or different sorts of limbs coming off them, and that means that each figure becomes molded into its environment. With this painting, I particularly wanted to feature imagery from a very current event and represent it as quickly as possible. So, this painting was made in summer 2021, and the 2021 BET Awards had just been broadcast I think the week prior to me starting the painting.

I wanted to try to mine some images from Getty Images of performances and have a painting that's so now. It's kind of like trying to capture a quick moment ... The painting features Megan Thee Stallion, it has Cardi B, it has City Girls, it has Nicole TV. These are people that might be recognizable, or are very recognizable to most people, but I feel like the speed of their careers rising and falling can sometimes be raptured out of the sky.

I am trying to archive them, but I do think the speed at which they come into our lives and the speed they exit is always intriguing. There is kind of a general aesthetic to the industry that they all kind of adhere to. So, the boundaries between who is being represented are not always clear, and that's not always important. They are being heavily manipulated through all the different layers that I put them through as well. But even as people they're almost avatars of each other. I think that's necessary for me to represent in my practice because I think that, as I see it, Blackness, generally, is kind of a moving target ... What these celebrities do is send ripples throughout the definition of Black femininity. We all are kind of connected in this network and that patterning behind each figure is almost like a visual representation of that network. So, Quaternion has all of that embedded in it and it's a flattening of who they all are. There are figures that are literally upside down to kind of anticipate that this is an artwork with two orientations: upside down and right side up. The painting itself has a kind of warp effect to it, almost as if you can't quite tell the difference between if it's happening within the painted image itself or if it's happening because it's also a painting mounted on a concave physical structure. It’s dizzying to stand in front of it.

It's almost like the work ends up pulling the image itself off the rectangle. The image is almost like a black hole sucking in on itself and I think that's a good way for me to talk about what I feel is the status of representation for these femmes, particularly, but Black femininity at large. I'm also very much interested in manipulating or playing with how people are physically oriented towards paintings.

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Caitlin Cherry, Quaternion, 2021, oil on canvas and aluminum, 4' 10" × 8' 6" × 6' (147.3 cm × 259.1 cm × 182.9 cm) © Caitlin Cherry

CS: To what extent was Quaternion informed by your interest technological and digital phenomena, and how do we see those phenomena expressed in its form and content?

CC: Quaternion is particularly influenced by themes in mathematics, which is something that's been building for a while because of my interest in data and the digital environment. It literally pulls its title from a mathematical formula, which is a four variable way to express an object's movement in space and it's used for these digital programs that sometimes I even use to make paintings. For instance, in a 3D rendering program where you create an object and you rotate it in space, you need these four variables to understand where its positioning is. That becomes the moment that two dimensionality meets three dimensionality and then three dimensionality meets four dimensionality, which ends up being the playground for this work. So, the image has to anticipate its potential for being moved, and the sculpture is designed ready to be moved.

It's interesting to think about how to turn a painting into what I feel like our smartphone technology is currently doing—you're looking at what is essentially a brick, which is very similar to the physical format of a painting. But now, more and more, it's a sort of multi-functional object: it’s a screen but it is also a camera that looks back at you. It is something that is meant to be rotated and it's kind of got a new life as these technologies compound on top of each other. It looks at you, you look at it, it records you—we have a kind of fetishistic physical relationship to it, and that’s how I planned Quaternion to be pseudo-kinetic, essentially. I was thinking about these mundane moments we have with our phones and our laptops: they’re almost invisible interfaces in our lives but they have a space … I think it’s a space of its own that is worth investigating, like that space between a viewer and a painting is worth investigating.

Quaternion also has resemblances to other technologies like a satellite dish, which might be the most obvious physical form it represents just in terms of its scale. Just as a phone camera looks back at you and records you, a satellite dish also is something that is sending and receiving information and scanning, just on a much bigger scale.

Also, the painting features the evidence of the Getty Images watermark. As I was looking for Getty Images photos from the BET Awards, I decided to leave some of the watermarks in there. That would usually be something to avoid for a painter or photographer, especially for images you buy—you would purchase the image in order to get rid of the watermark. I think that leaving them in is more about my interest in keeping the image true to itself. It doesn't matter if it's a high-quality image or a low-quality image, I can use the image just the same to serve the painting. So, the watermark just becomes evidence of the interfaces that we try to erase or how we kind of securitize images and block access to images and monetize them. I relate this to the ways that Black femininity is commodified within this world and on all fronts.

CS: What were some of your aims in creating a kinetic work of this kind—how does movement in a work of art change the way viewers experience it?

CC: Building a work that is kinetic but not necessarily mechanical or kinetic but not necessarily being moved constantly in a gallery—there’s a kind of potential energy in Quaternion that I want viewers to feel even if it’s not currently being moved. There are moments during the Pace Live performance that we decided to physically move the work, but it ends up being, I wouldn’t say a failure as a kinetic artwork, but I would say there’s something about designing a work in a three-dimensional program and thinking about how easy it is to move a weightless object in space, and then it’s a 400-pound sculpture. You still see that it is a confounding object to view in space because it looks very light, and it is very heavy. I think that’s part of the kinetic success of the work—that it’s hard to understand what its weight is and what its potential for movement is.

CS: What are some of the new meanings or interpretations Performance with Quaternion brought to the work by way of dance and music?

CC: The two acts had two different energies. Looking at in retrospect, I feel like Daigi-Ann and Ingrid Raphaël in the first act ended up being almost like representations of the sculptural aspect of Quaternion. Even their movements, as I was choreographing it, kind of unintentionally inspired them to mimic the shape of a sculpture—there was a lot of dramatic, sweeping movement. But Vitche-Boul Ra, in the second act, had the energy of the painting, which is much more animated. I think that ended up being serendipitous because it wasn’t fully intentional.

Moor Mother had created this score inspired by Quaternion because they had seen the work as it was coming to completion, and then we choreographed the dancing around the artwork. I think the score ended up bringing moments of quiet reflection to the first act, with some futuristic elements and jazzy tones—it was really a mash up of different styles. Ra in the second act with Moor Mother was very interactive with the audience and was bringing some of the tension that I wish that artworks could bring to viewers in the gallery.

Most of my paintings nowadays are of musicians, rappers, or people who work in nightclubs—so, bringing the club into Pace Gallery was the best thing to do. With Moor Mother being politically minded, as I am, they were able to have spoken word over the track as well, talking about current events, but also being inspired by the work at the same time. Nothing happens in a bubble—you can have a political commentary and be talking about popular culture and be a musician, be an activist, and be an artist. Moor Mother and I have a lot of hybridity in our practices, so we understand each other on that front.

CS: You’ve created moving and interactive works in recent years. What kind of poignancy or power do you think performance or interactivity can bring to a sculpture or painting?

CC: I think that interactivity gives a level of playfulness—it’s always kind of hard to figure out because when viewers tend to have been trained not to interact with art, painting particularly, they’re especially sensitive to touching. The question becomes how can I make that happen without falling into the trap of so much interactivity, which sometimes can suck the air out of a very sensitive, thoughtful work and starts to become more of a playground than an art show.

We’re interested in a lot of different things—we’re interested in movement, we’re interested in sound, we’re interested in interactivity. I don’t think that the traditional rules of sculpture and painting are always something I want. As a classically trained artist, it’s nice to bring some fun into the gallery, but it’s not fun for fun’s sake. This is just speaking multiple languages, including the language of performance, and the performances that I’m literally referring to in Quaternion are about entertainment in a lot of different ways: sexual entertainment, musical entertainment, popular entertainment. Painting and sculpture could never compete with that world in terms of that pop-y-ness, but I don’t think that necessarily means they can’t meet in the middle at some point in time.

For me, there’s tension in the way that these worlds meet —between painting and sculpture, sculpture and installation, installation and performance. There's this gap between each one, and that's a territory of play for me between all of them. Then there’s the fact that I’m representing culture that’s not traditionally represented in the fine art world, which is my culture, which is Blackness, which is Black femininity, and which is of popular culture, and also being somebody whose culture is painting, whose culture is fine art. I know how to tease the boundaries between the two because I’ve only ever had to deal with the tension between the points that these two meet. That’s where powerful things happen—when you are willing to investigate the space between. That’s the space where you can be innovative.

That’s why I want to keep working with interactive artworks and maybe return to mechanical artworks, but also kinetic artworks and performance in conjunction with painting and sculpture. It’s difficult to have a painting sit there and not get totally annihilated by a very powerful musical performance happening around it.

  • Pace Live — Caitlin Cherry On Representations of Black Femininity and Digital Media, Dec 19, 2021