Women have always held a privileged position in fairy stories and ‘old wives’ tales’, so it’s fitting that Amy Cutler’s deadpan dream scenes, which obliquely evoke such narratives, are mainly peopled by female characters. Although most of those old yarns end up reaffirming patriarchal models, female anxieties – such as misgivings over leaving the safety of a father’s house for a lover’s castle (Beauty and the Beast) or the fear of crushing servitude (Cinderella) – surface with piercing intensity. In Cutler’s work women navigate bizarre situations, sometimes accompanied by assorted companionable creatures that only add to the fantastic air. More thematically unified in their subject matter and demonstrating greater facility than many of Cutler’s earlier, folkier, paintings on panels, the 12 jewel-like gouache-on-paper paintings and three oddly old-fashioned intaglio prints on view in her recent show sketch out a discomfiting parallel world.
As it happens, these sweetly mordant tableaux evoke illustrations in storybooks more than the stories themselves, since Cutler’s characters and narrative scraps, such as they are, are cut from whole cloth: dumpy women pull snowmen on sleds as if they were kids or groceries, exotically garbed girls carry birdcages suspended from hair braids stretched out like clothes lines, and ladies clad in goofy green inner-tubed outfits energetically explore a watery gorge. The visual style, as well as some of the archaic costumes the characters wear, are more familiar, conjuring a variety of sources, including children’s book illustrations by such Victorian and Edwardian artists as Alexander Caldecott or Arthur Rackham, Indian miniatures, paper folk dolls, Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints and 19th-century fashion plates. Fittingly, since household chores are a recurring theme, Cutler’s detailed textures also recall the patterned appliqués stitched onto plain cloth backgrounds in certain quilts.
Childbirth, sewing, ironing – these and other obligations that have traditionally circumscribed women’s lives afflict some of Cutler’s women in unnervingly strange ways. In Progeny (2003), for example, two women face each other as if engaged in an intimate gabfest, new-born babies extruding from their mouths like speech bubbles made flesh, while one woman clasps the disembodied hand of the other. In Ironing (2003) a dour female pair takes a clothes iron to a third woman standing between them, pressing her body out of existence so that only frumpy garments remains. Patterned dresses and shirts littering the ground around them suggest that others have been similarly dispatched. At a time of subtle backlash against feminism these nightmarish images bubble up like repressed ghouls leering from behind the cheerful, attractive faces of home-making gurus such as Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson – except that here ‘home’ often seems to be the site of conflict between Cutler’s poker-faced women rather than battles between men and women.
Like archetypal characters in fairytales, within each image Cutler’s women tend to be interchangeable, with uniformly expressionless faces. Tiger Mending (2003), a charmingly awkward etching (a more elegant gouache of the same subject was shown in the 2004 Whitney Biennial), poignantly depicts a group of Asian seamstresses arduously stitching up a pack of wounded wild beasts. But the women show no trace of emotion. In general, these monochrome prints, which eschew prettiness and deploy an engagingly naive line, are more memorable than the works in colour. The uncanny image Birding (2003), for example, shows girls clad in Henry Darger–esque dresses and knee socks, with birdhouses where their faces ought to be. Two of these lasses are engaged in an odd, quasi-sexual struggle, one poking her hand through the round hole of the other’s birdhouse. In another print, titled Rug Beaters (2003), two women whack away at a carpet but, instead of dust emerging, a gaggle of pigs wearing numbered jackets comes flying out.
Cautioning writers against merely reweaving the same old narrative threads when translating fairytales to contemporary settings, A. S. Byatt recently wrote: ‘We live in a world very far from woods, castles, and gibbets. We live in a world of urban myths – alligators in sewers, grandmothers on car roofs, and a burgeoning virtual world of gossip and storytelling, real and fantastic, on the Web.’ Similarly Cutler mines an especially productive vein when she draws on current events. The elaborate gouache titled Siege (2004), for example, was inspired by the hunt for Saddam Hussein: flurries of arrows descend like heat-seeking missiles on bewildered people, some of whom clutch geese like their only treasured possessions.