Cover image of the review
Petra Cortright, CONNECTICUT LIGHT AND POWER cool win 98 themes +country +home +magazine, 2021, digital painting on anodised aluminium, 74.30 x 121.92cm, 1301SW. Image courtesy of the artist and 1301SW, Melbourne.

Petra Cortright, haunted lemon hunted spirit

19 Aug 2023
1301SW 15 Jul - 12 Aug 2023

American Apparel tennis skirts, Lana Del Rey, washed-out digital images à la Terry Richardson, and blogging. The aesthetic markers of the first generation to grow up online are having a renaissance. As younger millennials and older zoomers lean in further to their puer aeternus tendencies and relive their teenage years, the web is awash with nostalgia for the 2010s. In 2006, around the same era, the term “post-internet” was coined by artist Maria Olsson. Post-internet described the internet slipping away from its status as a futuristic and foreign invention, instead becoming both a ubiquitous banality and ever-present spectral force. For this generation, online became a new locus of being, no longer a contained or separate technology. The artists of this era, like any before them, used whatever materials were at their disposal. Thus post-internet art was born.

One of the first notable alumni of this epoch is Petra Cortright (b. 1986, California). Her debut exhibition at 1301SW, haunted lemon hunted spirit, comprises a suite of digital paintings displayed over two rooms, each room clearly differentiated by subject matter and material. The gallery is a collaboration between Los Angeles’ 1301PE and New Zealand’s Stark White. In contrast to most of Melbourne’s other commercial offerings, it presents the work of both local and international contemporary artists, oftentimes alongside one another. (A recent group show, for example, included Joshua Petherick and Lewis Fiddock alongside sanctified artist’s artists such as Isa Genzken and Jessica Stockholder.)

Petra Cortright self-identifies a preoccupation with the most typical art-historical subjects, neatly categorising her works as either self-portraits or landscapes. I might also add the still life. She appropriates these familiar painterly conventions with the utmost sincerity; she wants to create “beautiful things.” The first room at 1301SW delivers a series of digital paintings printed on aluminium, more or less containing the same ingredients: a horizon line, a grid, and a flurry of dancing, gestural marks. However, each version is distinct. The aluminium is reflective and the paintings glow like dull screens, catching the light at certain angles to produce a luminous flash. They float, impossibly thin, like mounted flat-screen TVs. The titles are generated from spam text and SEO lists collected by the artist. Examples include “Dairy Queen” D.A.R.E./daydream believe cover death+penalty+pros+cons and Slums of Beverly Hills_sexual positions serengeti sunglasses. Cortright’s titles read like phrases exorcised from a demonically possessed AI, a digital poltergeist wreaking havoc in the pipes of the internet.

Petra Cortright, CONNECTICUT LIGHT AND POWER cool win 98 themes +country +home +magazine, 2021, digital painting on anodised aluminium, 74.30 x 121.92cm, 1301SW. Image courtesy of the artist and 1301SW, Melbourne.

In CONNECTICUT LIGHT AND POWER cool win 98 themes +country +home +magazine (2021), the inference of a horizon line on the right-hand side of the painting quickly dissolves into a symphony of quick, thin lines. They resemble a Cy Twombly-esque iTunes Visualiser, vibrating across the painting. The aluminium sheen of the first room of paintings prompts an association with Apple-Millenium Grey, a colour that is omnipresent in the world of everyday grindset. Colonising corners of cafés, Apple-Millenium Grey hijacked our notions of beautiful design, an object-cathexis plucked from Jobs’s Garden of Eden. This bland seductiveness is repurposed by Cortright.

The subject of these paintings is not so much rocks, or flowers, or oceans or skies, although these are repeatedly present. Rather, the subject is “beauty”—more specifically, beauty as seen by Cortright. In the Western traditions of landscape painting, a scene is realised to capture the imagination of the masses, to invoke a truth about a shared reality. Early colonial Australian landscape paintings enforced a sense of connection and entitlement to stolen land for the English settlers. In haunted lemon hunted spirit, Cortright deploys landscape painting genre conventions as a means of visualising a subjective, fragmented engagement with the natural world.

Cortright’s paintings are made in Photoshop. She renders gestures digitally across two huge monitor screens, collaging them alongside imagery found online and created by the artist. The individual works originate from one huge mother file, from which an infinite number of siblings may be born. These iterations share features; one brush stroke may be repeatedly deployed across numerous paintings, or exist in multiple places at once within the same painting. As a result, the scale and proportioning of the works are uncanny, as are their depth of field. Although seemingly built up, there is no physical paint or collaged imagery to layer. Everything exists on the same plane. Forget zombie formalism. Cortright’s paintings are ghosts because of what is absent.

Petra Cortright, economic analysis of crime_editoria elettronica/educational software, 2021, digital painting on anodised aluminium, 74.30 x 121.92cm.

Hito Steyerl has observed that the internet and digital networks produce “too much world”: that our reality has been usurped by its representations and documented in excess of what materially exists. In addition to this condition of surplus is the fact that these documentations are in contradiction with one another, through phenomena such as fake news and AI’s mimicry. There is no singular truth or even just conflicting versions, but instead a changeable and infinite line of possibilities that are all equally true. Cortright’s work speaks to this condition. Although the same brush stroke may appear across multiple paintings, it is treated in a unique way. In economic analysis of crime_editoria elettronica/educational software, (2021), the same cluster of mustard yellow strokes appear twice in the lower right-hand side of the frame. It is important to note that Cortright does not employ repetition, because there is no original mark to be repeated. Rather, Cortright is using alternate versions of the same stroke. Each version is sourced from the same file; the same original exists in different versions simultaneously, like a collection of parallel universes.


Grab a copy of Memo’s first glossy annual magazine issue, featuring an extended artist focus on Archie Moore, the 2024 Venice Biennale Australian Representative, with essays by Rex Butler, Tara Heffernan, Tristen Harwood, and Hilary Thurlow.

Issue 1 features articles by Audrey Schmidt, Philip Brophy, Helen Hughes, The Manhattan Art Review’s Sean Tatol, Cameron Hurst, Chelsea Hopper, among your favourite regular Memo contributors. There are reviews and articles, including on Melbourne design art, French literature’s ageing enfant terrible, Michel Houellebecq, Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), the celebrated Spike magazine cultural critic, Dean Kissick, the local cult-favourite Jas H. Duke, and much, much more.

Memo Magazine, 256 pages, 16 x 25 cm

Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM, 2007, webcam video (colour, sound).

To use Cortright’s own oeuvre as a reference, her work VVEBCAM (2007) (recently acquired by MOMA) follows this same logic. The video self-portrait also existed as a performance in its original format as a YouTube video. The young Cortright, dressed in a blue button-up and grey cardigan, records herself on a webcam with a blank and displaced Hipster fluoride stare as she flicks through various clip art images sourced from the webcam’s inbuilt offerings. The generic cartoon additions invoke the artist as a playable character, sorting through aesthetic signifiers to align with. Cortright presents mutable versions of the self, rapidly altering her image with the click of a button. A tennis ball bounces, hitting the lower edge of the frame, lightning flashes across her forehead, bugs crawl across the invisible screen, and then a UFO probes her brain. A disembodied hand flashes a red card. A swirling, repetitive electronic track plays, reinforcing the association of a customisation page for a computer game. Cortright’s paintings follow this same world-building logic. There is some recognisable raw base of reality which she then builds upon, with variability appearing as a core formal element. When VVEBCAM was originally uploaded to YouTube, Cortright weaponised early forms of metadata by tagging the video with popular search terms. The phrases ranged from racial slurs to pornographic bait, conspiracy to FIFA. “9/11,” “boobs,” “murderer,” “communist.” Not much has changed in online discourse. Just as comfortably as she co-habitates with falling cartoon snow and rotating pizza slices, Cortright commandeers the power of language to infer latent violence. In luring viewers searching for offensive, erotic, and popular content Cortright sets a trap. The artist subsequently participates in this game, stirring up the arguments she had attracted in the comments section. In this way, the work arguably has a relationship to the landscape genre. VVEBCAM both creates and depicts the topography of the internet.

Installation view of Petra Cortright, haunted lemon hunted spirit, 2023,1301SW. Image courtesy of the artist and 1301SW, Melbourne.

The second smaller room of 1301SW holds four more paintings by Cortright, all depicting botanical arrangements. This imagery is familiar, echoing seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes, whilst erring on the side of generic and non-offensive IKEA-esque interior decoration. This collection has a decidedly warmer, Hygge-like aura, with all the works on Belgian linen and set in warm, wooden frames. viruses “cinderella” “University of Sussex” + conferences (2022) sets blossoms against a deep dark void, with peonies peering out into the darkness. In other iterations, eucalyptus, and orchids can also be identified. This incongruous pairing references a tradition of still life painting—that an arrangement of flowers can depict an almost impossible pairing of flowers from a variety of continents, climates, and seasons.

The familiarity of these works in their palette, sensibility, and contents is striking. I’ve seen it a million times, except I haven’t. In his 2011 video essay Versions, Oliver Laric mediates on repetition and archetypal images repurposed or debased throughout history. He adopts musings from thinkers such as Susan Sontag and Friedrich Nietzsche to make the case for art existing in an endless continuum of repetition. Nearly a century prior, German art historian Aby Warburg was also preoccupied with this idea. His 1924 Mnemosyne Atlas is a famous attempt to document the lineage of images and symbols across cultures. Warburg’s project manifested as giant linen boards pinned with interrelated imagery collected across history. This idea of image relationality was prophetic in regard to the function of the internet; Mnemosyne Atlas was essentially a type of proto-Pinterest board or Tumblr blog. The internet has provided us with an in-built mechanism for viewing images in this way in its introduction of the feed. Through scrolling, images are always viewed in relation to one another, in an infinite continuum. Cortright’s use of prototypical images reflects culture’s reanimating nature, which Warburg called an image’s Nachleben (afterlife), especially as it has been accelerated by the internet.

I can’t help but wonder if Cortright is trolling. Trolling the blue-chip galleries she’s represented by, trolling the art market and the art world. Not trolling in the same way as is done by an anonymous, irony-laden, dopamine-junkie, but trolling through being pure and unbridled in her sincerity. We’re living in a moment where irony is no longer cool unless you really mean it. In twenty years when art students are wearing archive Heaven by Marc Jacobs, listening to vintage Billie Eilish, and espousing old iPhone 14s for their authentic (read: abysmal) camera quality, these paintings will look really cool. Everything that goes around comes around.

Artists: Petra Cortright