For the past few years, Petra Cortright has been the toast of the art world as well as its most mischievous disruptor, gently probing its boundaries. From her webcam diaries to her mesmerizing digital paintings (which earned her the designation “The Monet of the 21st century”) , she has continuously redefined what art can do and mean in the post-internet age. Billing herself as an artist interested in “the creation and distribution of digital files,” Cortright’s puckish nature belies the seriousness and dedication that the 31-year-old shows in her craft. Taking a break from her 12-hour work day, we spoke to her about being the last generation to enjoy a pre-internet childhood, her formative experiences in the virtual world, dropping out of art school, selling digital work, the joys of Photoshop, experiments in 3D, and responding to success.
You and I are the same age and I distinctly remember the time that computers and the internet became a commonplace thing. How did that transition factor in your life, and what role does it play in your work?
My dad had a computer when I was born — a Mac — and I remember this thing sitting in the corner with this ominous glow. It was really beautiful. When I was 10, in 1996, I had my first experience with the internet. I was really fascinated by AOL and chat rooms, and I was always looking for nature stuff. I remember my first Google Image Search being for the word “tree” and I couldn’t believe how many images of trees came up. Before that, to find images of things, you would have to go look in books. I think it’s an interesting time to grow up — to remember both. Until I was 10 there was no internet, so I had a classical childhood. That’s incredibly different from how kids grow up now. I think there’s a bigger gap than generations in the past. I was always really interested in computers, but I was drawn to the more gentle things. I was really interested in Sim City 2000, or any kind of world building games, and I would spend a lot of time not even playing the game, but just designing the environment — changing the landscape, adding trees, waterfalls lakes and stuff. I think early on I realized that I wouldn’t have to follow the steps, you could just use your imagination. I realized how powerful that was. I could make much more complex things at the time than I could with my hands.
Was there a point that you can look back on and say, that was when I knew I was an artist?
Well, both my parents were artists, and I think when you grow up in an artistic household, it’s such a given from such an early point [that you are going to make art]. I made the decision much later, when I decided to go to art school, but I always felt like I was [an artist], it’s been a part of my identity since I can remember.
When did you realize you could make a living with art?
It was in 2008, and it was a two-person show at this gallery in Dallas, Texas. This was the closest I’d come to having a solo show, and the work was for sale, which had never happened before. I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable about it because I had no metrics for what number to say. I was selling pieces that weren’t really traditional, like there was a JPG for sale, for $2000, which, at the time I thought, ‘What sucker is going to buy this? It would be unbelievable if that happens.’ But it did happen and I couldn’t believe it. It seemed to me that making money should be this hard thing, it should be this really difficult thing that you had to strive for, and the concept of making something that I would be making anyways, and then also selling it, it just seemed too good to be true. The other thing in that show, there was a YouTube video, it was my first webcam video, and I had no idea what to set the price at, and I was kind of just joking to the gallerist, like, why don’t we charge $0.10 per YouTube view, and he thought that was so funny and a really good idea, so that’s what we did. It was kind of an appropriate price for it — around $2000.40.
You went to California College of the Arts and Parsons and dropped out of both. Why didn’t that work for you?
I just thought everyone was talking so much and not making anything, and that bothered me deeply. I’ve always felt that with the things that I make, it’s not an assignment — I’m trying to make something that is really meaningful to me. I was definitely one of those students who was overly emotional about things, very sensitive. And the classes that I was able to do whatever I wanted to do I did really well in and the classes that I thought were boring or I thought the teacher was an idiot, I failed. I was a horrible student.
How was it living in New York at that age?
There were a lot of problems. I moved five times in a little under two years. Every apartment that I lived in ended in a horrible disaster. It was biblical or something. The first one there was a carbon monoxide leak and I was living in the basement. The next apartment there was toxic mold, the one after that there was a flood, the fourth one was bed bugs, and the fifth one was a fire. So the living situation for me in New York was always hard and unstable and really stressful, but I don’t regret being in New York at all. I think it’s still such a central point of the art world and I feel like I connected with so many people there that I had been talking to online for years and years. Being in New York really cemented friendships that had been just digital, because so many people come through New York. I think at this point that’s an argument for why people should still be going to art school, just for the peer group, it’s very important to meet people, and to be around like-minded people who are making work that’s relevant to your own work.
Who were those people in your case?
It’s really dorky. There’s this “Surf Club” and it’s called Nasty Nets, and there were all these net artists and people who were just working online, and basically everyone in that group was a big influence on me at that time.
You are mostly known for your internet art and YouTube videos, but you have been making paintings and sculptures for quite a while. Do you differentiate between the “traditional” arts and the avant garde art that you do?
No, I’ve never been a stickler for trying to make a divide between the two. I’m much more the type of person who likes to blend everything together and blur the lines rather than have the attitude that ‘this work can only be digital, and this work can only be physical.’ I don’t really think about it like that. All my decisions are really fun-driven, and it seems like a downer to try to limit the work.
You’ve been on the forefront of a lot of things that are now commonplace in our lives, like selfies and YouTube confessionals. Do you consider yourself a futurist or are you just reacting in real time to what you experience?
I don’t really think of myself as on the forefront of anything. I can only make the kind of work I make about something that I’m interested in at the time. I guess that’s the reason that the webcam videos have slowed down a bit, because I’ve been doing them for over 10 years, and it just feels like that body of work is winding down. It’s really funny because that technology is super popular now with Snapchat and Instagram stories, with the facial tracking effects and stuff, and it’s crazy that it took so long to catch on. You can only mine a certain resource or a certain software for so long before you’ve exhausted it.
Do you feel like software and games and things have become increasingly restrictive?
It’s not so much that software’s become restrictive, but that everything has moved towards phones, which I’m not a big fan of. I tolerate smartphones, but I would never use them for work. I’m probably going to be a crotchety old person huddling over a desktop one day while my grandchildren are making fun of me. I just find phones so constrictive in terms of what can be done. There’s so much more you can do on an actual operating system, and you can work a lot faster. I’m an efficient person, so I want to be able to have control over everything and not to be only allowed to whatever app is ok’d by Apple. That isn’t a factor yet for software on a computer. This is a weird conversation to have after the net neutrality vote today. (I try not to get too upset about things. I guess I try to remember that at any point in time it’s always felt like the world has been ending if you really think about it, and people thought that back in the middle ages.)
A few years ago in an interview at the Frieze art fair in London, you were talking about some raspberries that were Clip Art raspberries that were rendered in 3D and you said that it was interesting to bring fake things into the real world. I’m curious how you define fake and real?
[I consider it fake] because it was an illustration of a raspberry, it wasn’t a 3D object to begin with, it was a Clip Art thing that wasn’t made to look real, and there was something strange that happened in the process of that. That sculpture is slightly disturbing to me, which is super interesting. Sculpture is something that I’m just starting to think about, because I feel really strong with anything 2D that I make, so it’s probably a good idea to engage with something outside my comfort zone and start to think in 3D terms.
There’s a bit of an uncanny valley there, with something that you’ve only seen on a screen, to see it on a pedestal in real life.
Yeah, and I think what that has told me is that I really, first and foremost, have a painter’s brain. I feel so confident with the world that I want to construct in a 2D sense, an image that I want to bring forward. And it always comes so easily and naturally to me that I get a little bit frustrated when I have to work at something. I know that’s a horrible thing to say, but I really enjoy making my work, and there’s not really a big moment of suffering for me that a lot of other artists that I talk to seem to have. I talk about it all the time with my husband, [the painter Marc Horowitz], and he has to have a period of misery before he has a breakthrough, and I just don’t have that at all.
How did you first start making your ‘digital paintings’?
It was a pretty natural, linear process. Early on, when I first learned Photoshop, I would try to create new worlds or landscapes with the very basic tools, because I had just learned the software. Every time I try to learn software, I just start with, ‘how can I push the most basic thing possible?’ and I started off making these copy and paste landscapes—really simple but pretty effective, and then with every version of Photoshop the software went more and more towards painting and I was really happy about that. Every time a new version would come out they would have some new tool that I was excited about. I forget which release it was that they came out with the mixer brush, I feel like it was 2010 maybe, but that was the closest thing to a paint brush, because the brush could load multiple colors at a time, you can control the amount of bristles on the brush, the wetness of the brush. That was when the images that I was making started to become quite painterly, and it just felt so good. I would work with it for 12 hours a day, it was just so fun. Every morning I would wake up and I would just want to paint all day, which I know is the feeling that a painter gets, so there was something that really clicked with that.
Has your success affected your practice? Do you second guess your ideas or think that ‘this has done really well, so I should do more of this’?
I think it would be foolish to say that that doesn’t affect my thinking because it kind of does. But I try as much as possible to not make something with the place it will go to in mind. I have a really hard time with that. My favorite thing is to make something for the sake of making it, not with anything on the line. One of my favorite things that anybody said about my work was from this artist Paul Chan, he called it “disinterested” but he meant it in the most positive way, like I was just making these things with nothing on the line, which I thought was the smartest thing to say, because that’s really my ideal way of making. So, I try to do that.
Cover image: Stefan Simchowitz.