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Amy Cutler, “Fossa” (2015–16), multimedia installation with sound by Emily Wells and hair by Adriana Papaleo, 12 x 10 x 10 ft (all images © Amy Cutler, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York) (click to enlarge)

During a recent chat on a Brooklyn park bench, artist Amy Cutler described her unexpected role as a confidant to strangers. “It’s always fascinating what people decide to share with me when I have an exhibition up” she told me. “People come and tell me very personal things.” This comes as no surprise. The illustrative gouaches and drawings for which she is known feature women in states of work or activity, often burdened by heavy parcels, surreal domestic situations, or Sisyphean tasks. Her narratives are emotional allegories that rarely arrive at any conclusion or resolution, but rather provide an uneasy snapshot of an interior moment. Masterful use of negative space and mysterious objects add greater ambiguity to the work. It is only natural for viewers to fill in these gaps with their personal experiences, sharing them with the artist in an attempt to ease their own burdens.

Detail of Amy Cutler, “Fossa” (2016), graphite on paper, 55 1/4 x 47 in (click to enlarge)

Cutler’s latest exhibition, Fossa, currently on view at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, invites us not only to bring our own experience to her work, but to physically inhabit it as well. Taking its name from the term for an anatomical hollow or groove, Fossa is focused around an installation that invites us to enter directly into a narrative scene and, in doing so, to become a momentary character ourselves.

“Fossa” (2016) is a rustic installation within the gallery space informed by Cutler’s exquisitely detailed drawing of the same name. The graphite on paper work depicts a commune-like society of women working and living together in a matrix of tall, hollowed-out tree trunks connected by a network of long braids grown from their own hair. The large-scale drawing buzzes with activity. The women work in concert, their economy centered around braids. They’re depicted growing the hair, washing it, braiding it, using it both for utilitarian purposes and as a means of connection. Some sleep in bunks suspended by the braids, others use them to hang laundry, others use swirled spools as seating. Wrapped fabric bundles, frequently found in Cutler’s works, are tucked into various nooks, their contents unknown but clearly valuable. At the top of one tree sit industrious switchboard operators using the braids as a communication system. The network of women is self-sufficient; they use their very own bodies to subsist and connect. “They’re like worker bees or even like drones,” Cutler explained, “I don’t think of them so much as individuals, but a unit.” The end product and reason for the women’s activity remain unknown. What they communicate is unclear, their wrapped bundles and reasons for braiding concealed. Their craft, DNA, and secrets are shared via the hair that links them.

Amy Cutler, “Celeste” (2016), gouache on Japan paper, 13 x 10 1/2 in

The drawing serves as a key to Cutler’s life-sized domestic scene, which features a four-foot hive of thick, twisted brown braids at its center. Staged and well-lit in an otherwise dark gallery, the vibrant femininity, textures, and emotions of Cutler’s drawing have come to life. Sounds of human breaths and sighs, laden with emotion but absent of words, play from speakers. Braids emerge from the hive to the ceiling and weave throughout the entire gallery space.  Four braid-wrapped, brightly colored fabric bundles, the same as in the drawing, surround the hive, inviting guests to sit; another pile stands in an adjacent corner of the gallery. Knobs of found wood protrude from the hive, as do dark braids of once-living human hair that connect to headphones wrapped in an intricately-woven, braided headband. Donning the headphones, the visitor becomes a braided character herself, and is now connected into the network, privy to more details about this mysterious environment by the sounds she hears. The scene is enclosed by two walls. On one an old, worn, two-man saw hangs against delicate green wallpaper, evoking a woodland setting. On the other wall hang brushes with stringy human hair dangling in long wisps, their owners absent.

Amy Cutler, “Cornelia” (2016), gouache on Japan paper, 13 x 10 1/2 in (click to enlarge)

“Fossa” itself is a collaboration among women, Cutler’s first. She worked with her longtime friend, the musician Emily Wells, and the hair stylist Adriana Papaleo to create the work for a SITE Santa Fe commission last year. Cutler wanted Wells and Papaleo to have complete freedom to do what they wanted for the project, but did ask each to read two books for inspiration: a book of the Kinsey brothers’ photographs of early 20 century loggers in the Pacific Northwest and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland, an early feminist utopian tale of an isolated society of women who reproduce through parthogenisis. Together, the trio arrived at the theme of concealed burden, which is often present throughout Cutler’s solo work.

Wells brought very personal elements to the “Fossa” installation. She recorded conversations on the topic of concealed burden with several close friends, then extracted only the sounds of breaths and sighs to play throughout the gallery. “The conversation’s content is not revealed,” Wells explained to me as we listened in the gallery, “but the emotional work we are all doing is present in the room.” A greater level of connection is achieved when one listens to “Fossa” via the headphones. The music and words emitted are both inspired by and taken from a series of long conversations Wells had with her father. When thinking about concealed burden, Wells says that “the person I kept coming back to is my father, a particularly burdened man in certain ways.” She spent a week recording a series of intimate conversations about her father coming out as gay. “He’s been coming out for 17 years,” Wells said. “He and I came out around the same time. I have carried it as well.” Not only do her musical compositions add a unique male voice to the work, but they underline the installation’s theme of cross-generational connection and burden.

Detail of Amy Cutler, “Fossa” (2016), graphite on paper, 55 1/4 x 47 in

Meanwhile, Papaleo’s magnificent braids literally tie “Fossa” together. A fantastically creative hair stylist who works primarily in the fashion industry, she toiled for months creating more than 800 feet of braids out of both synthetic and human hair, which span almost the entire gallery space. They bring a life force to the installation. “Hair radiates,” Cutler said. “You can feel it has belonged to someone. It feels like a living thing … when you touch it, it’s magical.”

Fossa’s narrative is ultimately unresolved. “The viewer has to decide what’s inside,” Cutler said. “You bring that with you to this space. It’s amazing because while I put a lot out there, I leave just as many questions.”

Amy Cutler’s Fossa continues at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects (535 West 22nd Street, Sixth Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 30.

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Kerry Gaertner Gerbracht

Kerry Gaertner Gerbracht is an art historian and writer based in New York CIty. She holds an MA in Modern Art and Critical Theory from Columbia University and a a BA from Wellesley College. Her interests...