by Todd Stong
When the first renderings of the COVID-19 virus emerged, floating spheres spotted with bulbous rose suckers, it was hard to reconcile the danger the disease posed with its seeming cuteness. How could such an odd, soft-looking, weightless particle wreck so much havoc?
In Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Sianne Ngai describes cuteness as an insidious phenomenon, one that plays at our emotions in more sinister ways than we realize. Literally a softening of the word “acute,” cute is devoid of angles, such that the cutest things might be formless blobs, maybe with two big, circular eyes—no mouth necessary. Cute, she argues, is a category emergent out of late capitalism’s crusade to move product, an aesthetic that plays on a sore need for intimacy as well as a dark craving for the power to dominate. Cute calls on us to protect it. From what? Well, ourselves—our desire to smother and completely subsume it. When we are powerless in our own lives and deprived of touch beyond our immediate companions, cute fills in the gap.
Artist Amie Cunat uses her distinct visual language to play with and against cuteness in a solo exhibition of paintings at Peep Projects, the new Philadelphia project space of artist and curator Libby Rosa. Influenced by biomorphic forms of Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miro, as well as soft-meets-hard, bodily notions of Lynda Benglis, Cunat nests motifs of the microbial within substantial shifts of scale to hint at something like an act of nature. Through her work, we might live for a moment with the dissonance of the absurd power that a floating, microscopic speck holds over us.
Cunat’s show is a masterclass in how shape contorts with the weight of color in transformative fusion. Somewhere between abstraction and representation (though nearer the former), her compositions illicit numerous signs, symbols, and real-world equivalencies, supercharged with pigment. Ambiguity hangs over all of it, leaving space for unending free association. Under other circumstances it is entirely possible that their reading might be wholly benign, unrelated to disease. But Peep Projects itself is designed for the express purpose of providing safe access to art in the age of COVID. Rosa has installed a hallway peephole so that anyone passing through Viking Mill can safely view the exhibitions inside.
Checkerbloom, the eponymous piece of the show, is a floor-to-wall painting that ruptures the space of the gallery with ruddy reds and hot yellows, living amongst the smaller paintings on canvas, which spot the walls. Emerging from a burgundy floor, its fiery protrusions swell quickly through exponential curves and into spiking fractals, a mutation of mathematics. It is impossible not to recognize the sign of disease: those ubiquitous red graphs of infection numbers, which here spin out into biotic forms.
In this framework, the other paintings become even more corporeal, presenting a larger question for the show: what does it mean for a body to be in touch with its exponentiated destruction? And what new things can grow out of the wreckage?
The paintings on canvas are both playful and foreboding, soft and sharp, like living things, innards. There is a sense that you might be prodding into the guts of a creature from some world parallel to our own. Lungs. Lymph nodes. Intestines. Heart.
Even down to their most fundamental formal aspects, the paintings call on the body. Cunat eschews the tape that would typically service a graphic style like hers. Rather, in the lineage of the late Thomas Nozkowski, she insists on working with as much precision as her hand alone can provide. The effect is subtle but important. Tape produces sharp lines in the surface, paint cut at right angles to the canvas. An insistence on speed and mass production. In Cunat’s hands, however, nothing feels completely hard-edged, despite seeming crispness. Instead, small lips of paint swell at the boundaries of shapes, slow, like kisses, bodies meeting.
Hung above the smaller of Checkerbloom’s two peaks, the paintings Plume and Plum with Minty Prickles and Rampion Arms contain the imagery of the show most suggestive of body parts. In Plume, what might be intestines are busy in digestive work, aided by blue flames. Small particles flit here and there, tiny circles marked by X’s, suggesting multiplication, or, twisted at an angle, plus signs, test positives. Rampion Arms could be a tattered book or lungs, ravaged.
Globes and Propellors is perhaps the most otherworldly of all the canvas paintings. Its base structure calls on flowers or fungi, but something like a hand reaches from the painting’s bottom into the center stem. Suddenly, the space of the central figure becomes a cavity: an alien ant nest, maybe, or a pore to deeper levels of skin, dotted with nerves. At the same time, the painting sings—perhaps a read of the purple ellipses that grace each flower head, which could be mouths, or openings of headphones. Like all of Cunat’s paintings, Globes and Propellors resists a singular reading. Whatever its forms might be, by force of complex color and line, transparent washes glowing against opaque and densely layered passes, the piece vibrates almost sonically in chroma.
But of all the paintings, it’s the last and largest one, Cornflower Fanfare, that proves the hardest read. At first, it seems to have little to do with the themes present elsewhere. Hung on the entrance wall, it’s the last piece I noticed. It’s also the only piece not visible through the gallery peephole. Painted in pastel oranges and blues, this painting contains the clearest reference to recognizable forms—flowers, spider webs, drawers.
It gives pause. The spiderwebs form the arch of an antique vanity, offering the drawers their context. Yet there is no mirror. We do not look into another world, nor at a reflection of our own. Instead, like all of Cunat’s work, the painting mingles with and complicates our own reality. Flowers, blooming out of the drawers, live in what would be the vanity mirror’s frame – not the viewer, not me. It begins to unsettle.
Something is locked in those bottom drawers. Or are they caskets?
Amie Cunat, Cornflower Fanfare, 2021, flashe, gouache, and ink on canvas, 30×24”
Or, less morbid but just as foreboding, could this be the domestic space, vacant and overgrown? As easily as Cunat’s forms take on properties of the body, they can lay claim to the realm of flora. One painting: mushrooms; another one, ivy; this one, a sunflower; that one, roots. Their colors are bright, attracting pollinators, siphoning sunlight and beaming it out. Each engages with its rectangular boundaries, forms pressing up against the limits of their confines as if seeking escape, plants grown too wild for their planters, weeds overtaking a garden wall.
Something in them, then, calls for uprooting. That they are out of order. That they threaten a balance. Or is it as elemental as their aesthetic character? The function of cuteness, Ngai has stated, is to insist on its own protection – not from some vicious predator, but from ourselves. Indeed, cute aggression is a studied phenomenon, a result of some primal switch flipping.
Yet even then, Cunat’s paintings don’t feel like they’re in much danger. They seem to hold all the cards, glowing with aura. Who is it, then, that really needs protection?
For a moment, I imagine a passerby pausing at the peephole and looking through at me as I look at the painting they cannot see. Their breath lifts from their mask to fog the glass lens. In the haze, I am small, fuzzy, soft, distorted, quizzical, enclosed and – alone within those walls, breathing my own air – safe. But not for long.
Todd Stong is an artist, writer, and educator living in Philadelphia, PA. He received his BA in Literary and Visual Arts at Brown University and is currently pursuing an MFA in printmaking at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. His most recent project, Alternatives, is a book of drawings and Mad Libs for the Quarantine Public Library.