Continuing her exploration of the representation and visibility of black women, the paintings Caitlin Cherry showed at Luis De Jesus depict black female figures who appear to be trafficking in the sort of flattened sexuality seen on Instagram. The women pose in alluring ways, as if the paintings were selfies that might procure thousands of likes. Yet the psychedelic streaks of violet, blue, yellow, and green that color both the women and the background give the impression that, as the press release suggests, these are images seen on phones gone haywire. The subject of Sapiosexual Leviathan (2018) squats suggestively in fishnet stockings; in Corrupted Mind Palace (U H O H H O W U N F O R T U N A T E), 2018, a blue-skinned woman casts a sultry look toward the viewer, fingering her lips with one hand while the other rests on the rump of a bent-over woman.
Like the women they portray, Cherry’s works also go through a kind of flattening on Instagram, which is where I first saw them. Online, the images look smooth and irradiated, due to the digital compression. In the actual paintings, however, the colors appear erratic and shifting. To achieve this effect, Cherry paints quickly with broad, blended strokes using thick applications of oil. The resultant works have a rough physicality that shatters any expectation of gloss that their online viewers might have.
Two sculptural works on display also conveyed a nuanced understanding of contemporary visual culture. In Chair with Mount (2019), a painting of a background detail from Sapiosexual Leviathan is attached to an office chair by a monitor mount. In Kiosk (2019), a detail from Phase Shift (2019) is rendered on a canvas affixed to a sectional co-working desk by a dual-armed mount. The second arm on the mount holds a surveillance camera pointed at the painting Ultraviolet Ultimatum Leviathan (2019). Three works are thus connected in a circuit of performance, surveillance, and consumption—the same cycle that occurs on Instagram, where users post aestheticized versions of their lives, view such content by others, and become advertising targets whose interactions are tracked by the tech giant.
The arms on the mounts recall the arm of a friend holding up a phone to show you a picture. Their prominence here suggests that the production of images in the studio is of lesser importance than their delivery by the networks and hardware that bring them to the screen, where viewers can digest them quickly without reflecting on the compression and elisions that occurred.
Leviathan, the mythical sea beast, is referred to in the titles of several of Cherry’s paintings. In belief systems of the ancient Levant, Leviathan represents chaos, and its defeat makes way for divine creation. The creature is hidden and known at once; its fearsome mystery is essential to its monstrosity. Cherry’s figures, such as the bug-eyed green woman sucking on a finger in Sunhead Emergent Leviathan (2019), can be monstrous. But they are masters of their chaotic surrounds, confidently inhabiting their bodies, despite the screen’s distortion of their personhood.