Past, Present, Progress: Amy Cutler at Ruby City, San Antonio

by Leslie Thompson September 8, 2023

When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to have long hair that flowed luxuriously down my back. Now that I’m older, having long hair feels less glamorous and more of a hassle, especially in the Texas summer heat. But it turns out I’m not the only one who had an obsession with Rapunzel-like hair at a young age. New York-based artist Amy Cutler recalls her fascination beginning in 1st grade, when a couple of her classmates had really long hair (to mid-thigh!). Cutler couldn’t let her hair grow past her shoulder because of too many tangles and too little brushing, so instead she watched her classmates handle their hair like a ferret on their shoulders. Hair and all its many entanglements are one of the recurring motifs in her first solo presentation in Texas — Amy Cutler: Past, Present, Progress — at Ruby City in San Antonio. 

Cutler is known for her detailed drawings and paintings that create fantastical worlds and activate one’s imagination. Critics and viewers often categorize her work as surrealist, but the best comparison I’ve heard is to the work of Dutch Golden Age artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Like Bruegel’s, Cutler’s work appears to be a normal scene at first glance. But start to peel away the layers and one finds little oddities. Her artworks live within a space between myth and reality that is sometimes humorous and sometimes ominous.

The exhibition focuses on three central motifs in Cutler’s work: hair, heads, and horses. Horses appear in several large-scale paintings, often representing strength, as seen in Transference (2020), wherein women are navigating flood waters on the backs of their valiant steeds. Due to their association with transportation, Cutler’s inclusion of horses can also allude to transition or moving forward, like the recently completed Commencement (2023). Made during the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic, danger and difficulty pervade the composition as women target soaring horses with pointed umbrellas.

Drawing of women on horses in white water

Amy Cutler, “Transference,” 2020, gouache on paper, 22 ⅜ x 22 ½ inches, © Amy Cutler, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

work on paper of people on horseback shooting and flying horses

Amy Cutler, “Commencement,” 2023, gouache on paper, 55 x 60 inches, © Amy Cutler, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

Cutler’s attention to detail is captivating. Look closely at the women in the above paintings and you’ll find intricately patterned outfits unique to each figure. Cutler’s choice of textiles lends the work to associations with folklore and fairy tales. In college, the artist made her own patterns, but felt limited by the combinations she could conjure of stripes and polka dots. It was only when she began looking at books on textiles, researching other periods and cultures, that her palette opened up. To this day, Cutler tries to visit a local folk art museum when she travels abroad, enabling her to see similarities between the ancestral dress of the Sami of Finland and the Inuit of Canada, and to notice traces of Inuit textiles in the traditional patterns of Korean dress.  

Another focus of the show is heads and their connected or disconnected faces. When embarking on a new piece, Cutler always starts with faces. The face tells the artist everything: mood, personality, posture. For example, there’s a sense of detachment in the face of Ida (2023), as a cloud of smoke or fog emanates from her unmasked head. The woman slouches, holding on to a pile of turtles in her lap, perhaps hinting at the passage of time. In Cutler’s 2018 drawing Cedra, we see behind the head of the figure, the inner workings seemingly dictated by the bird in her hand. Faces also become interchangeable for Cutler, as seen in her 2020 drawing Convey, in which a procession of women each carry multiple face masks from which to choose.

Drawing of a woman in profile

Amy Cutler, “Cedra,” 2018, graphite on paper, 30 x 22 inches, © Amy Cutler, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

a procession of women walking in a line

Amy Cutler, “Convey,” 2020, graphite on paper, 30 x 22 inches, © Amy Cutler, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

Hair takes center stage in much of Cutler’s work. For the artist, “hair reveals so much about a person’s identity. It also holds the most basic genetic information about a person’s DNA, which links them to their past and their current health.” Cutler’s fascination with hair is best exemplified in her interactive installation Fossa (recently gifted by the artist to the Linda Pace Foundation/Ruby City) and its related drawing of the same name. Originally commissioned by SITE Santa Fe, Fossa (2015-2016) was a collaboration with musician Emily Wells and hair stylist Adriana Papaleo. Before brainstorming around the piece, Cutler asked her collaborators to read two books: one of the Kinsey brother’s photographs exploring the logging community of early 20th-century Pacific Northwest, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, a feminist utopian story about women who lived in trees. Cutler’s Fossa (2016) drawing is the culmination of these two inspirational sources. We see a community of women living and working in the hollows — or fossa — of trees. Whether playing music, sleeping, or bathing, they are each connected to each other through a network of braids, a framework that carries over into the installation. 

The Fossa installation explores the theme of burdens, which can sometimes be expressed through physical weight or tension. The largest weight of this piece is the hive of 800 feet of braided synthetic and human hair. I felt some of the physical weight of that burden when I put on the headphones connected to the braids, the weight of the hair balancing on my head. At the time I visited the show, there was no clear signage instructing visitors how to interact with the piece (thank goodness I asked if I could step into the domestic space), so I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the full experience of listening to all the different recordings that I later read about (the audio toggles between music and excerpts of a conversation between Wells and her father). 

Installation view of a room with a tree

Amy Cutler, multimedia installation with sound by Emily Wells and hair by Adriana Papaleo, “Fossa,” 2015-16, 10 x 10 feet, Linda Pace Foundation Collection, Ruby City, San Antonio, Texas, Gift of Amy Cutler

Drawing of trees with miniature scenes imbedded in the trunks

Amy Cutler, “Fossa,” 2016, graphite on paper, 55 ¼ x 47 inches. © Amy Cutler, Linda Pace Foundation Collection, Ruby City, San Antonio, Texas

The basis of much of Cutler’s work is personal experience mixed with contemporary politics and references to our ecological environment. Over time, the artist has built up a vocabulary that recurs throughout much of her 20+ year career. However, for Cutler, it doesn’t matter if the viewer is tuned in to that symbology. There is no clear narrative or singular interpretation. As she says, “While I put a lot out there, I leave just as many questions.” 


Amy Cutler: Past, Present, Progress is on view through February 25, 2024 in the Studio at Ruby City.

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