Petra Cortright

We talked with Petra Cortright about leaving ruins around the internet, desktop wallpapers, and the various terminologies attached to her work.

Cortright’s video work expands contemporary definitions of self-portraiture through her webcam videos, which explore notions of identity and performance. Cortright’s Photoshop works push painterly traditions into new territories, responding to the proliferation of contemporary online visual languages. 

Cortright’s first monograph will be published by Skira this January.

Cortright lives and works in Los Angeles.

Are you watching any interesting TV, movies, anything?

It's really dorky. It's a show on Netflix. Do you remember that show 24? It's with the same guy, Kiefer Sutherland. It's so cheesy, but it's called Designated Survivor. All of Congress and the President get blown up, like thousands of people–he was some minor member in Congress, and then he became the President. It's so stupid,. I'm just loving that right now.

I'm a big re-watcher of things, especially when I'm stressed out. Sometimes I can't handle any new narratives. I've watched a House, M.D. a disgusting amount of times. I can recite lines from it. It's just to calm down, I just have to rewatch stuff. It does make me feel very mentally ill.

COLORBLOCK, Stella McCartney by Petra Cortright,
2016, webcam video, 31 sec.

Did cinema influence your video work at all or was it specifically internet based media?

No, to be honest, I don't think it did. I love films, but the idea of making that, it's so different from my videos. I really just like working alone. I associate cinema with working with a massive team of people. I don't know if I can wrap my head around exactly how films are made, because it just seems so difficult to get everyone on board for a single vision. It freaks me out working with that many people. I'd like to do it, but I think it’d be so challenging for me.

So no, but in terms of the videos that I made, a big thing about using a webcam was that I could do it by myself. I could be the editor, actor, director, everything all at once. Maybe it's a control thing, I don't know. That's just what felt comfortable to me.

Have you ever worked with a team?

I don't like collaborations. I guess kind of, but usually with just one or two people. I haven't really worked with big teams.

Who is your primary representation? We saw you're represented by both Danzinger and Foxy production in New York.

I work with so many people. Foxy and Danzinger in New York, Societé in Berlin, Carl Kostyál in London, Ever Gold in San Francisco, Bank gallery in Shanghai, Duarte in Portugal, County in Florida. Here in LA I work with 1301PE, and the infamous Stefan Simchowitz. I love working with a lot of people, and I think the way that I work is pretty conducive to that. Everyone can just get what they want. It's interesting I have two galleries in New York, because Danziger shows primarily photography. Well, only photography, actually. I think there's a connection with photography in my paintings that goes, a little bit under the radar or something. I don't know.

That's interesting. In your more recent work you use a lot of images from the web and Pinterest and put that into Photoshop and whatnot, is that where the photography connection comes from?

Exactly. I literally break down photos to make a painting. A lot of the brushstrokes originate from source photos. It's a mix of so many things, collage, painting, photography, but it's also very much not painting. My husband is an oil painter, and what I do is definitely not that, all the materials and stuff that he has to worry about. None of that is my concern.

Ultimately, Photoshop is a photo editing program. Photoshop is kind of like a Swiss Army Knife of a program. You're supposed to be able to use it for a lot of different things. But again, ultimately, it is a photo editing program, and I'm making paintings in it, it's a little bit odd. It's not really what it was made for. I think all the brushes that they made are actually for retouching photos. So I bring in all of the found photos from the internet, or cell phone photos that I've taken. For the underpainting, I will really heavily manipulate a photograph, or I won’t and I'll have it show through the brushstrokes. But there's definitely a very strong element of photography.

007 goldeneye_all characters cheat, 2013,
digital painting on aluminum, 48 x 64 inches

This question is a bit random, but what's the first piece of art that you remember making?

Something that I considered “art” with a capital A or just something I made?


I've always really loved computers. And then I got really into desktop wallpaper. If you think about your computer being your space or your room, I just wanted to have a really cool desktop wallpaper. In the beginning, every time that you updated the operating system for older Macs or even on Windows, I've always used both, but every time you update the OS, it comes with new sets of wallpapers. I would get pretty excited about that when I was little. Then I learned Photoshop in 2002. My older brother was a graphic designer, and he started showing me in high school. The first pieces that I made were these early Photoshop pixel paintings. I would zoom in with a one pixel Pencil tool and zoom in as far as you can go, I think it's like 3200%. I made these kind of pointillism paintings, this very simple exercise in color, composition, texture. They’re on my website, if you want to see my decrepit, rotten website. 

t_shirt, 2006

I like leaving ruins around the internet, because I'm older, I've been using the internet for a long time. And there's bread crumbs everywhere, stuff that I've been doing for so long. I just leave it there to rot. Nobody checks personal websites anymore. If you want to see what people are doing, you see if they have an Instagram. But there was a time when you would Google someone's personal website. Those pixel paintings are on my website.

Anytime I teach myself new software, I have this game of trying to use the simplest, most basic tool to make something really nice or see how far I can push it. I would mess around very early on in Photoshop. There are landscapes on my website, too. I posted these on my LiveJournal in the early, early aughts. I would say that's probably the first stuff I really felt was something for sure, and not just a hobby or a craft. It felt more like art.


Is it a kind of archival exercise for you to leave these breadcrumbs?
I can't tell if I'm a psychopath for not deleting stuff. A lot of people I know that are my age have deleted so much. I think it was my attempt at being sincere over the internet. It was actually a decision that I made a while ago, maybe 10 years ago, that I didn't want to delete stuff. I saw people doing it all the time, constantly curating their persona. It seemed like a lot of work, and it seemed like they were obsessed with controlling the narrative. I just felt like “okay, well, if I'm going to post stuff, I should really assume that it's going to be out there forever. The internet is forever and you should just live with that decision.”

I guess I wanted to take some agency and be sincere about my actions or intentions, how I lived my life online, for better or for worse, even though there's so much cringe that I left behind in my wake. Like my old Flickr, all my ex boyfriends have deleted every photo of us and all mine are still up, scattered across everywhere.  One of my exes and I went on trips together and he deleted everything except for pictures of him on those trips. That seemed more psycho to me than leaving them up. It seemed like the equivalent of if someone had a printed out photograph, and they cut someone out. You can't undo reality. You can undo the perception–but it’s 2020, what reality are we even fucking living in anymore?


You said something about control, which I think is interesting because I read your Photoshop works as a way of taking mass amounts of images and information and putting it into controlled filtering. Is that at all how you conceptualize it?

I've never thought about it in that way, but I think I do agree with that sentiment. A big part of my work involves using things that other people have made, like found photographs through the internet. Over the years, I've downloaded so many brush packs, or plugins for Photoshop that other people have made. I also make my own brushes, but a lot of it is about gathering. There's a real joy in hunting and gathering all these different things over the internet and then controlling it or distilling it into a finished piece.

I'm interested in your installations, like PETWELT [Société, Berlin, 2014]. Your video works seem to be very desktop based, what does the idea of projecting them onto walls in a room add to the work?

I really consider them self-portraits. I don't know if I ever read my work as something like that. It's funny, when I exhibit work, I try to give up a lot of control about the final output. I've exhibited those videos on tiny screens, and I've blown them up. It's entertaining for me to change the scale and see how it plays out. I liked that show. We projected one of the videos in a corner, and it lined up nicely with the room that was in the video. It was just like a very simple thing that added to it.

When I'm exhibiting work, it's not really my style to be like “I want it exactly like this,” because every space is so different. I think it's more fun to play with the space, and that gallery has the most beautiful apartment rooms, it felt kind of domestic already. So there was something fitting about making them a little bit more life sized.

PETWELT, 2014, Société, Berlin, installation view.

And Ella Plevin wrote the text for that. How did that come about?

Oh, she was dating my friend at the time. I knew her socially. She's just a super smart, funny, writer.

They fit together so well, I was wondering if you reached out to her.

I almost never reach out to anyone. I'm very lazy and also maybe even shy. That's why I post stuff on the internet. Before the internet I guess people would have to bring a portfolio into a gallery, but that idea is terrifying to me. I am sort of passive with it. I love just making things available. And if people care about it, or give a shit about it, great. If not, great.

So, no, I never reach out to anyone. I always wait for people to email me. And then I almost always say yes to anything. Not in a bad way, but I'm always flattered if anyone wants to talk to me about anything or do anything.

Did you ever go on Second Life?

Yeah, I remember poking around on that when I was at Parson’s. That was like in 2006/2007, I remember it being a thing then. It seemed dangerous, that I was going to get really sucked in. But also with that kind of stuff, I'm a bit dorky. That was very social. And, to be honest, the only games I've really been engaged in are world-building games. I used to play SimCity just when I was little, but I wouldn't even play the game. I would just do the thing before you started the game where you bulldoze the earth and you can add mountains and trees and lakes and all this shit. It's not even actually playing the game. You prep your world for how you want it and then you start the game. And I would just do the prep for hours. The social element seems tiring.

Did you like living in New York City?

I'm definitely a California person. I had a hard time in New York. I lived there from 2006 to 2008. I think I moved five times in a year and a half or two years. I actually have really bad luck with apartments, it rained fury on me. The first time I had to move was because of a carbon monoxide leak, and then one of the apartments flooded, then there was toxic mold, bedbugs. The bed bugs was definitely the worst one. And then I finally left because of a fire. That one was actually my fault.

The fire started because of all the candles that I had. At that point, I had stopped going to class and I was living in Bushwick. I was obsessed with these Quinceañera stores that sold birthday decorations and candles and stuff, and I had way too many candles. Super dangerous.

It was so bad, it felt like plagues or something. I think maybe I would have stayed longer if I had a more stable living situation. But I think I'm a California person. I really do like having a car, driving places, putting shit into the car and lugging it home. I remember all the schlepping in New York. I guess I'm not a schlepper. But it's so fun there. I still have so many friends there, I love going back. Now when I go I can afford to take a car, but when I when I was a student there, I felt like I was constantly at rat level, in basement apartments and then taking the fucking train underground.

Andro-6, 2015, digital painting, duraflex, 3D print, UV print, 
and stickers, mounted on acrylic, 49 x 42 inches

Yeah, mid-winter, you leave your house and it's still dark, you go underground, you're at work, and then it's dark again by the time you get on the train and get home.

Yeah, I'm also a pussy. I'm not the kind of person that does better under pressure. I don't rise to the occasion. I just fucking crumble, I know that about myself now. I definitely do my best work when I'm comfortable, not struggling.

And then the other problem was that I went to Berlin while I was still living in New York. I was visiting some friends and I was like, “What the fuck? Everyone has the nicest apartment here.” I was like, “Sorry, how much do you pay? What do you mean? You have an extra room? What do you mean? And the extra guest bedroom has a balcony?” I don't know if it's like that anymore, Berlin prices have gone up so much.

Have you lived in Berlin?

Yeah, I was in Berlin in 2009/2010.

Yeah, I was wondering about that because you have that video, “Das Hell(e) Modell” (2009) with the Kraftwerk soundtrack.

Yeah, that was actually made in my apartment in Berlin.

How do you pick the music?

It's always what I'm listening to and then the webcam usually scrambles it, it ends up sounding really weird. I always just try to work with anything that people might normally be annoyed by or  glitchy sounds. I try to enhance it as much as possible and make it work for me.

Are you on tik tok?

I'm too old for tik tok. The worst thing happened during quarantine is that my mom got addicted to tik tok. So she sends me links all day. But yeah, I don't need to be on tik tok.

When I was making the webcam videos, it was definitely at a different time in my life. I was moving around so much, literally moving different apartments or different cities.There was a lot of turmoil throughout my 20s. I'm a millennial, and I feel like millennials kind of came of age in their 20s, not in their teens like boomers did. Everyone was such immature babies. Our whole generation is going to be criticized for living with our parents. It's a very different world. Like I said, I really do consider them self portraits. I was trying to figure out who I was. My computer was always my studio. Anytime I moved, I would have a new background or a new room to make the videos in.

The videos aren’t vlogs though.

No, my voice is not any of them.

when you walk through the storm, 2009, webcam video, 1 min. 55 sec.

I'm wondering what the audio is for “Bridal Shower” (2013) is?

Oh, that's this nightcoregirl song. But yeah, there's a bit of intent in not having my voice. I didn't want it to seem like a vlog. When I first started doing early YouTube stuff, blogs were very popular. And then on YouTube, it was the vlogs of people doing confessional style videos, but I didn't want to do that. I'm not really that articulate of a speaker. The idea of having my voice involved seemed very cringe. I don't know if I was trying to protect myself or remove certain aspects of myself. Those videos are probably 50% a sincere reflection of whatever mood I was in or whatever was going on at the time. Some of them are sad, some of them are funny. There's a range of emotionality, but then they’re still 50% performance. I was trying to be a little bit disinterested, not making a ton of eye contact with the camera. I’m doing performative things, using my body or hands or hair as a way to make the effect the most interesting or the most beautiful.

I try to do it pretty quickly. If I get bored watching it, how am I going to expect someone else to watch it. Usually I could get whatever I needed to get across in one or two minutes. It didn't need to be a long, drawn out thing. I did go to art school, and I had to sit through people's art videos that were excruciatingly long. Even something that’s a six minute video, if it sucks, it might as well be 600 hours. People need to check themselves and think about what they're doing to other people.

Bridal Shower, 2013, webcam video, 1 min. 57 sec.

To move on to the works you’re making now, where you’re physically printing the works, I had this thought, while I was looking at some of the works online. I feel like I didn't really feel an impetus to see them in person, because they're so technology based. Obviously, it would be really fucking cool to have see them printed on these materials. But do you feel strongly that they should be seen any which way? Or do you not really care how the images that you've made are disseminated and seen?

Do I care if the work is seen online or the physical piece? To be honest, I don't really care. I think there's many “okay” outputs. I try not to get too hung up about that. I think my biggest concern is maintaining the soul–that sounds cheesy–but maintaining the soul of the file. I think the best way for them to be seen online would be a JPEG of the file, because you would see more detail. The physical pieces are so different when I print on all types of materials. This one is on aluminum. [points the camera at a painting on the wall].

In the printing process, I can control the alpha layer. There's like maybe 10% ink in some spots and you have the substrate showing through. So you get these glow-y effects. The whole point of trying to print on different materials is to combat the fact that digital stuff can be quite flat. Ultimately it is 2D. So having some light and life come through the reflective surface of the aluminum really helps the files. It makes them a very beautiful, physical object.

I truly am interested in making beautiful things. So if it's going to be a physical thing, to have it on a really, really nice linen or something reflective, it enhances the file. I started doing linen after I was doing prints on aluminum. I love aluminum so much, but it's literally a cold hard surface and I don't necessarily view my work as cold and hard.

The pieces on linen are really soft and warm, and they're probably the most in conversation with painting, because it's on raw Belgian linen, which is what oil painters paint on. I've been super happy with both outputs. I could be happy with that file printed on aluminum, another version printed on linen, and then a JPEG of it that I post online. I think all three are valid. I try to cultivate win-win-win situations and not get tunnel vision, like “this is the only way it can be.” Why limit it?

Celebrity addresses/fiji firing tour squad, 2017,
digital painting on anodized aluminum, 185.4 x 365.8 cm

Have you been working with any new materials? Also how did you like printing on silk?

The first time I ever printed anything out was on silk, I had a show in Mexico City. There was an image of silk in the painting file that I was working with. Those ones were really beautiful. When people would walk by, they would move. The color palette was really ethereal. I just tried to do what makes sense, I don't like to overthink things.

Recently, I've been poking around with augmented reality, I prefer it a little bit more. The studio has worked with a VR company to make a few pieces of a painting file, so you can walk through it in VR. That's kind of fun. I've also been making a lot of painting videos, where I run a script in Photoshop that toggles the layers on and off. My friend, Carl Tashian, wrote the script for the project, which was for the New Museum x Rhizome exhibition [Brushes, 2015],a couple years ago. Our project [all_gold_everything.psd, 2015] was the dumbest, simplest thing possible. It was a few lines of code it had the biggest impact. It does what I do, but more randomly. Inevitably, I get tunnel vision for I want a painting to go.

I don't know if I've explained this, but when I make a painting, almost every brushstroke is on its own separate layer. So the composition can be changed quite a lot. I can just flip through backgrounds. So the JavaScript switches backgrounds, turns layers on and off, and you get these new combinations that I wouldn't necessarily see, because, like I said, I get tunnel vision on one combination of brushstrokes or something. It's quite nice to run the script and watch it make cycle through all these variations of the painting file.

all_gold_everything.psd, 2015, .gif

For your show at Team Gallery [borderline aurora borealis, 2020], it felt like you were walking through like the layers of brushstrokes.

That was like a literal representation of that. I was like, “what if we’re very literal about this and print out a bunch of layers.” It was a fun show. There was a lot of work physically hanging all the things.

Are those on silk?

There were like 12 different materials. It wasn't silk, it was on voile, very sheer. And there was organza, what they make these very elegant dresses out of, and then there was plastic, there was vinyl. Oh, my God, there were so many different materials. I work with a master printer in New York; that's where my main printer is based. She works in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. We’ve worked together for a long time. She really helps me with R&D, in terms of new materials or printing processes. And she's familiar with how I built the files, so we just play around and see what looks good. That's a huge benefit of working digitally, the printing processes can be really playful. The biggest obstacle that I have is that I don't get that level of texture. My husband makes really chunky, thick paintings. He has these oil bars, and the colors are so saturated. I can't even touch that level of texture and life. So I try to bring some fun in with the printing processes and the substrates.

borderline aurora borealis, 2020, installation view.

Do you read a lot of what people write about your work?

I don't. I don't think there's that much written anyways.

I feel like I read a lot.

I guess. I feel like I've done a lot of interviews. Over the years, I've said some really stupid stuff in interviews. I don't know. Like I said, I'm older, and the labels that I've cycled through have been really funny. In the beginning, it was “media art” or something and then it was “net art,” and then it was “second wave net art” or “web 2.0.” And then it was fucking “post-internet artist.” And then actually, I think MoMA just got my first webcam video [VVEBCAM, 2007], and I think they went back to “media art.” I made a joke on Twitter, “filthy post-internet art: not allowed in MoMA – media art: okay.”

I've never really been able to control that narrative. I think some people are really obsessed with how they're perceived or what people say about their work. I don't really like to police people's thoughts or words about my work. I've had some realizations, myself, from insights that I've heard from other people. I think some people definitely really miss it or get it wrong, but I've never really felt the need to issue a correction or anything.

VVEBCAM, 2007, webcam video, 1 min. 43 sec.

What are some misconceptions that you've seen, or things that really missed the mark?

My biggest gripe is probably the selfie label. Selfies for me are with a phone, and maybe it's super nerdy, but I really think of those videos as self portraits. I get confused about the selfie thing because those works are so computer based.

I really don't like smartphones. I feel like my quality of life went down when smartphones were introduced, there's something so cynical about them. I guess social media was at the same time. There's many things that happened, everyone sort of got herded into like, Facebook and Instagram. I'm sorry, this is a whole different conversation.

But with the videos, I spent a lot of time downloading all these different webcam softwares and programs. I had different physical cameras, and each one has a different quality, does a different thing. The way that I make the videos, there's no post production, it's one take. With a lot of the different softwares, you can run one video feed into the next program, so you open it up, turn on whatever effects that software has, and then you can open up the next video effect in the next software, and you can put effects on top of those. So it becomes very customized,  depending on which way you run the feeds, and how many effects. The softwares usually come with default effects, but they'll usually have like user-made effects that people upload themselves. You can spend hours and hours of like, downloading hundreds of little things. Usually it's not quick, it takes forever. There's a lot of busy work in collecting and tinkering.

So the selfie thing for me is like, “this is like a selfie, put the phone here, click.” Why can't they just be self portraits, because a selfie is so quick, with these videos there’s such a different intention behind it. I don't think selfies are that sincere, they're linked to the whole face-tuning thing, finding certain ways to look good, there's certain poses, etc. There's more honesty with a self portrait. The webcam videos weren't about me looking good, I kind of looked like shit. It was more about mood and emotions.

DRK PARA, 2013, webcam video, 2 min. 8 sec.

There’s a way that the layering of the videos goes hand in hand with the way that you're layering the paintings.

That’s a big connection. When I think about making stuff I think about layering and figuring out five different effects, or five different layers of brushstrokes. There's so many decisions that you make, in what order to do them, and how, the piece can change so drastically. That's why it's  fun to figure out, it's a bit of a game to figure out the right combinations that look the best. It just clicks when something feels natural.

I have a random question: do you have a favorite art historical era?

I don't know. I feel like this is because I've been reading Hemingway recently. I really love Hemingway. I was reading A Moveable Feast. I read him a lot, one of my favorite books is The Sun Also Rises. That time, early 1900s, seems pretty fucking amazing. People traveled a lot and did whatever they wanted. It seems like a nice time. There was enough technology then, I'm not interested in living in a time before soap. That seems like a nice time to be alive or make art. It seems like people weren't so strict, they seemed open to interesting ideas. I'm a huge fan of Matisse, Monet, Picasso.

What excites you about contemporary art right now?

Oh, my God. I don't want to be cynical. I see nice things around, but you see people getting canceled, policed. It's a funny time. I guess I'm not excited about the internet right now or maybe just social media. I think a lot of people kind of feel that way. There's very intense structural problems with how our lives have become so entangled.

I haven't been looking at that much work recently. I always struggle with these answers, because I always want to be positive. I never want to have the stance of, “oh, things used to be better.” I think that there's nothing productive in that.

We did have an artist say “nothing.”

I'm tempted to say that, but I don't think I feel like that. I'm looking on your website right now. I really like this painting by Joani in your most recent interview. These are really, really beautiful.

Call Trees VC++, 2014, digital painting on aluminum, 48 × 36 inches

That’s interesting, because she actually takes photos of landscapes and architectural features, and does a somewhat similar thing where she collages and layers them into all sorts of different combinations for months before she paints them.

I love them, I love landscapes, I really, really do. And these are kind of Dalí-esque. I see things all the time that I like. But then there's so much carnage in a way from people being like “you can't do this or say this,” and I don't really like that. The current climate is not necessarily good for art, but people I think are still doing really nice things. I think it's really hard to feel like you have a grasp, like “what the hell is really happening?” There's so much noise, it's pretty intense. The world just keeps getting faster and faster.

Visit Petra Cortright’s artist page.

︎: @petra_cortright

All images (c) Petra Cortright