Irena Jurek: You hang your paintings off meat hooks, place them on pedestals, or even catapult them. Within all of your paintings there’s this idea of painting as object.
Caitlin Cherry: At the core of it, there is this impulse to take traditional painting on stretchers and alter the way its displayed. I feel like painting in general, out of all of the mediums, has this aura of protection around it.
IJ: Like a sacred medium?
CC: Yes, it’s like a sacred medium or respected or feared in a way. That’s why I’ve always been inclined to keep paintings on the stretcher, and I haven’t been the type of artist who wants to do assemblage. I want to maintain that as a face, there’s this history or trajectory of painting and I want to use how I display paintings to speak about that. I want to use my paintings as weapons but they are also used sometimes to enact violence.
IJ: Can you talk more about painting being a metaphor for a battlefield?
CC: Painting is the best way that I know how to communicate. It’s essentially me throwing my ideas at you in a literal, slapstick way. People are always invested in seeing the painting upright and on the wall. They’re almost invested in this safe way of viewing.
IJ: It’s like a control group almost.
CC: Yeah, I want them to see a painting on a catapult or they see it away from the wall. Makes them think about it differently. That whole conversation of painting as object, painting beside itself, is a typical conversation around painting. I view painting as an object, and there’s just as much conversation coming out of its back, the stretchers, where the stretchers came from, the canvas that it’s on, and the signature on the back; there is as much information as on the front. The back speaks to this history and the front has the ideas. I view them both as speaking at the same time, so it’s necessary to show both. As far as painting as battlefield, I’ve never wanted to make it seem like I’m against painting. It’s not that I hate painting, I love painting.
IJ: I could see that, but I think there is a history of the idea that there is this romantic battle; painting a painting is a battle, especially found in the works of the Abstract Expressionists or Expressionists in general. There is a certain sense of humor found in that aspect of your work.
CC: Right. Sometimes you come into the studio and it’s the best studio day and you think that you made the best piece of art ever. Then the next day you think, “this is shit, I don’t know what this is but I’m never going to show it.” I want to show you that battle on the canvas. I think all artists have to deal with their medium as a battlefield, and that’s just the process of creation. It’s never a straight lined good thing, or if it is you’re doing it wrong! Or you have way too many assistants or you planned everything out too early.
IJ: I think that it’s also more of a newer attitude to show that aspect, to show more vulnerability in art. Older generations weren’t as prone to do that.
CC: It’s totally different from this idea of bad painting, where somebody consciously attempts to show a struggle that is not real.
IJ: It’s almost hyper ironic, bad painting. It’s self aware of being bad. By using the metaphor for painting as battlefield, you’re actually reintroducing the idea of effort or importance and significance.
CC: In all of those battles, which go down, the end result isn’t always the same. There are times when the painting survives and becomes the most important part of the installation, and it doesn’t get graffittied or covered up. Then there are times that it does, and the sculpture or installation has to win in order to redeem the whole project. Sometimes the paintings are heralded, and celebrated, they’re put on a pedestal literally and other times they are leaning over like they’re ready to commit suicide. I’m interested in showing all of that. It’s just more real. It is just really the process of working in the studio, and the studio is a battlefield, you know?
IJ: Sometimes you set paintings on fire, using fireworks. There is this performative element to you work. How important is your role as performer/painter to authorship? Where do you see yourself? Are you always present?
CC: I guess the question is am I the perpetrator or the savior? I’m definitely a performer in my work. I never want to be present completely in the physical way. In the Loyalist installation, where I had the canon fuse, it was never my intention to show the canon fuse being lit in the gallery. It’s theater that isn’t meant to be seen, it’s theater that’s happened in the past. It was supposed to be a past action; this canon fuse had already set off a canon that was shooting at the other painting, the Queen Victoria painting. I’m more interested in you seeing all of those layers of possible destruction, and the actual painting that was previously there, than I am watching the whole disaster go down. Either I would show up before the action or after the action, but I wouldn’t show the action itself. I think that takes a lot away from people seeing two-dimensional objects like paintings.
I’m trying to concentrate on this 2D/3D tension where you’re moving through different realities. You’re creating a reality through painting, and the sort of reality of seeing ready-made or constructed objects next to each other. Performance is just another can of worms that I’m not interested in opening.
With my installation at the Brooklyn Museum, there’s two pieces that have the potential to be launched, and there’s one piece that has been launched. I’ve debated in the past whether I’d show a painting being launched as a performance, that’s the obvious question that everyone asks. I would never show a painting being launched.
IJ: You have a recurring cast of characters in your paintings, you have this amphibian every person creature, the black santa, and the sexy bunny, among others. Could you talk more about the characters in your work?
CC: The Golem character, the every body, everything character, is actually from Jewish folklore. There are tales of this anthropomorphic being that gets created out of clay or sand or dirt and then becomes animated and then essentially kills its creator.
IJ: That’s almost like a twist on the Narcissus myth. Do you identify with any of the characters?
CC: If I were to identify with anybody, I would say it would be the Golem figures, but they identify with everything. Their purpose is to be chameleon like, I identify with that sort of way of living. You have to be a chameleon to be at a certain party, you have to be dressing like everyone else. Golems can be any color, and sometimes they have to change genders.
I’ve always had this narrative of a post-human world. Maybe they’re aliens that have come back that are trying to pick up the pieces of American civilization.
IJ: There’s definitely this idea of time in your work, you’ve recreated the DaVinci catapults for your installation at the Brooklyn Museum. Could you talk more about that?
CC: It’s funny that we were just talking about the Golems taking over the future, but most of my work is about the present or the past. I have a personal fascination with history, but I’m also interested in war and politics. I really don’t want to talk about those things that specifically.
IJ: It almost seems that there is a sense of play and humor that references much more serious issues. That’s a way of allowing people to think about those things using satire.
CC: It could be considered satire, because the paintings seem light-hearted on the surface. Depending on how you look at them. If you’re just looking at the paintings, things could come out looking quite humorous and light-hearted, but if you look at everything at once you get a different interpretation. I’m not trying to necessarily make fun of war or politics, I’m just trying to give light to the fact that things you would think are very serious are humorous at the same time. When I make pieces like the Sarah Palin paintings or paintings of politicians in them or black Santa, or the Easter Bunny girl, they’re all equally fictional and absurd. The humor exists in recognizing that Sarah Palin is not much different from…
IJ: There’s this fallibility in the characters. Although none of them are really human, even Sarah Palin, they’re all deeply human on a level. By removing the human elements, you make them more human in the end.
CC: Totally. That’s the purpose that the Golems serve. It makes it easier for me to insert dialogue, whereas to put humans in the paintings, for me, would make them very weighed down. These Golems can be whatever I want them to be at any given time.
As far as the whole satire and war, it’s not that I’m trying to make war seem lighthearted, but I’m trying to get people to recognize that these things are not sacred. These things are a part of who we are. At the same time as I’m representing Queen Victoria, Britain, and America as a battle, it’s also connected to how we all have these times of great hatred for other people, fights, and jealousy. We all shoot the canon and launch paintings.
IJ: There’s a little heaven and hell in all of us.
CC: It’s not that there’s humor in that, it’s just that I’m trying to point out the humanity in war just as much as I’m trying to point out the humanity in laughter.
IJ: Do you have any upcoming events coming up?
CC: As far as upcoming events, I am curating a show, TIS BANK, at Torrance Shipman Gallery, in Sunset Park. It is an artist-run space I co-run. The show will feature work by Lisa Cobbe and Troy Michie. I will also be giving a talk at the Brooklyn Museum on August 29 with art writer and critic, Nick Faust.