Caitlin Cherry’s growing invaluability to the art world should come as no surprise; her commitment to black female subjectivity places the oft-imitated but systematically dismissed aesthetics of hip-hop hustle front and center, posing a real threat to the sleepy status quo we've come to expect from genre figuration. Smart, subversive, and incontrovertibly sexy, Cherry's pieces hum with radioactive irreverence, transforming viewers into beholders with the flick of a brush. Her blockbuster turns at the Brooklyn Museum, Performance Space in New York, and Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles have secured her spot as a needed, disruptive force in contemporary art dialogue. Currently a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Cherry is not only a steward of pictorial anarchy, but also a deeply funny Instagrammer, dedicated hairless cat mom, and white wine connoisseur.
Artspace caught up with Cherry on a visit to New York to chat about her practice, her source material, and most importantly, her thoughts on Stefflon Don's wigs.
I’d love to know more about your sourcing process for your images. It seems as if there’s an obfuscation at play with your figures—they’re not anonymous, necessarily, but they are kept at arms’ length from the viewer. Is that a protective impulse on your part?
The process is definitely changing... I’m more recently concentrating on stills from music videos, although for former shows, I was tracking a couple specific Instagram girls and glamour models that took me down a bit of a Google rabbit hole. I would get interested in a girl, like this one strip-club bartender from New Jersey, and just consume her whole feed, picking out what I liked, and then digitally altering individual images it until I thought they worked as compositions.
For subjects who are from music videos, like, say, Angel Lola Luv, I was sourcing from old footage or old KING magazines, so I was having trouble getting the quality sharp enough to do anything other than present them anonymously. I think there is a sense of protection, of the subjects maintaining control, but it's also a practical move. Some of these models have sort of “monstrous” features only a certain kind of person might be able to recognize in a gallery. Like, there aren’t many people in painting circles who will look at one of my paintings and go, “is that the girl from that Petey Pablo video in 2003? Is that the girl from the cover of KING in 2006?”
So, how do you feel like these references operate in fine arts spaces where the paintings live?
I think, honestly, all of this spawned in a low-key way from my frustration with the respectability politics of representing black figures in painting. Because black women are so rarely represented, I’ve been noticing that a lot that people want to depict us in only the best of ways, and I think that that’s such a limited perspective; what are the “best ways”? What does that mean? To put it short and sweet, I’m archiving a huge, untapped part of how black women are represented and how we are interested in representing ourselves; I want to archive it and also elevate it. And that’s where the protection part comes in—the image of whatever girl I’m painting would just be consumed and then disappear on its original platform, and will then be defined by the seedy-ass comments on her Instagram, but if you take the same image and move it to a painting, what happens? These sorts of images are the hardest to transfer in that way, because we want to pretend like those types of women who are tattooed or augmented or come from non-respectable backgrounds aren’t important, or aren’t mainstream culture, which of course they are—they’re copied all the time. I’d never seen this kind of girl in a painting, so I felt like I had to do it myself, because their experience is closer to my image than what I’m used to seeing in museums or galleries. I feel like I always have to make it clear that I was not an exotic dancer, although there’s definitely a part of me who would love to have an exciting double life as a professor-stripper [laughs].
So would we all! That’s one of the things I love about your work—it sort of side-steps a simple read on “empowerment” or “positivity” en route to a larger conversation about representation. In that vein, do you ever get frustrated with the way your work is written about?
There’s always going to be slippage between what’s actually on the wall and the elevator speech or press release about it. I think it’s been a little awkward, mostly I think because everybody just has a different understanding of the work, and people want a punchline or a quick takeaway, like, “oh, this is about the oversexualization of black women in the media!” when, like, ...she’s a stripper. This is what she gets paid to do. She’s got nipple tassels on! Who is being “oversexualized” here? I feel like that read isn’t always nuanced enough. There are a lot of complicated politics behind the kind of women that I’m showing, but I’m also not depicting the “everyday” black woman, either; if anything, I’m trying to remind people that this isn’t a secondary aesthetic or industry, this is primary culture, even if a gallerist doesn’t always know how to talk about it.
It’s true! It’s not as if [rap duo] City Girls aren’t everywhere right now. Your work is also never making fun of the subjects, but there’s definitely something challengingly funny about the pieces, especially with your titles. How do you think humor is deployed?
I sometimes think the work is funny, but I don't know if other people think it's funny. I do make it a point to know who is really buying the work, just because I’m curious. Interestingly, I have a lot of women who are collectors, which wasn’t the case five years ago. At the outset of my career, it was all male collectors, and now it’s women from a lot of different backgrounds. I have one who is this female self-made entrepreneur with tween daughters; she's hanging my work in her living room, just this huge ass I painted in the middle of her house, and she was like, “this is for my daughters!” and I was like... what? I didn’t expect that. And maybe that goes back to the “empowerment” thing... I’m not going to throw that on the work, but if there is any positivity happening, it’s probably specifically sex positivity. The old idea that we just need more representation of black women isn’t good enough for me. My concern is multi-tier; I am increasingly interested in who buys the work and what people say about it because I don't want to perpetuate certain stereotypes, and since I know I toe the line in terms of ambiguity sometimes, I recognize people are going to make quick assumptions. My response has always been, "that's cute, but why don't you look a little deeper?"
Is misinterpretation something you worry about? Or do you sort of assume it's going to happen regardless and that can't be your responsibility?
I'm more on the "it's going to happen regardless" side, but if I can interrupt an incorrect narrative about the work, I definitely will. I've had issues in the past where people have written about the work badly; I was busy concentrating on painting so I didn't look over the writing for one show, and when coverage started happening, I had to call and be like, "this isn't acceptable." This press release got condensed into a snippet that then made it into a paper, and the little paragraph they wrote just made my blood boil. It was clunky and clumsy. I think it's clear in the paintings that I want to talk about women we culturally pretend we don't desire but absolutely do; at this point in my career if writing about the work gets sloppy, I feel like I can step in and say, "no, it's more complicated than that." My gallery in LA has been really great and involved in helping me communicate what the work is really about.
What direction are you heading in now? Or more importantly, when are you painting [rapper] Megan Thee Stallion? [Laughs]
Now I'm concentrating more on images of female rappers sitting on cars, so maybe Megan will happen! I'm waiting for her to come out with a big budget video with some really good stills in it. Since I'm primarily using video, the process of mining images is taking a little longer than usual. I'm sourcing a lot of images of Tokyo Jetz, particularly; I have a show in Italy in September and it'll include a lot of Tokyo Jetz images. I'm also looking into a lot of Stefflon Don; I'm really interested in her self-presentation.
Sidebar—Stefflon Don is so interesting to me.
[The British rapper's] team is really trying to turn her into an American commodity and she hasn't quite crossed over yet, so it's wild to watch that process happen in real time. Her styling also has zero through-line, it's like they're just trying to see what sticks and hoping they can cohere it into something viable.
Yeah, totally. One of the reasons I don't use images of Nicki [Minaj] and Cardi [B] is because I don't necessarily want people to know exactly who is in the piece; I don't want it to be a straightforward portrait or be about the rapper herself, more about the identity of the rapper, or of being a rapper in general. They're all sort of styled similarly; there's a blueprint. Stefflon's interesting because she's definitely got some meat on her, but the styling's still the same. Whereas Tokyo Jetz is a very petite girl, and painting her can be a little... boring? Everybody is still wearing the same wig, though; the short green wig, the baby pink bob, the long black straight wig. There's also this thing with female rappers where you can just be hot and then your team can try to build something around it, like, "we'll figure out the rapping part later." That's why Megan Thee Stallion is so refreshing, she comes with actual talent. And male rappers have always been able to look like whatever and sound sort of crazy.
It's extraordinary the level of handsome or talented you don't have to be to be a male rapper.
Yeah, but I've always really appreciated that, actually! Like, it's a value system that doesn't have to correspond with anything outside of it. The mediocrity that gets launched into the mainstream has everything to do with what the public wants, and sometimes you just want someone to root for! To be totally honest, I don't even listen to all the stuff these people put out; I'm way more interested in the aesthetics. Like, with someone like Tokyo Jetz, I might know one or two of her songs because I've happened across them, but for me, it's all about the image. I can also make these paintings pretty quickly, so I'd love for Megan to drop a video on a Friday and I can get the whole painting out of my system by the next Friday. I want the work to be timely, and to feel timely to me. I don't want to get bored.