Visual Art

Julianna Thibodeaux

Amy Cutler

Indianapolis Museum Art

Through June 4

'Trial' by Amy Cutler, part of her exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Is it possible for contemporary art to be both accessible and complex? In the case of Amy Cutler, the answer is yes. Considered one of the darlings of today's contemporary art scene, Cutler's richly imagined narrative paintings and drawings strike a chord - even if they at times don't make sense. But there's a biting truthfulness that emerges from beneath the nonsensical, storybook-like imagery that makes the work both delightful and intellectually satisfying.

A comprehensive exhibition of Cutler's exquisitely detailed work, on view at the Indianapolis Museum Art, is testament to the IMA's ability to do more with more. That is, the larger spaces already afforded by its recent expansion - still underway - did not give short shrift to the contemporary art program, beefed up significantly since Lisa Freiman joined the museum's curatorial staff and was able to envision greater and more diverse offerings.

Freiman's choice of Cutler for such a significant exhibition - I counted more than 50 works - is consistent with the trajectory of Freiman's curatorial interests, which have recognized female artists more than is perhaps typical, addressing a profound inequity that will take years to right. Artists such as Ghada Amer, Kara Walker and Laylah Ali address gender and cultural identity, as does Amy Cutler - but each also has a highly developed sensibility that suggests a unique vision and edginess that is perhaps unexpected in their chosen media, which is often subtle.

Cutler's finely tuned brush, often inspired by randomly experienced imagery, brings to life women in impossible roles: as if our dreams, and nightmares, suddenly became reality. The burden we carry as caregivers suddenly becomes manifest in a horse strapped to our backs, say, or our children emerge from our mouths as seemingly permanent appendages.

While Freiman doesn't directly address such issues in her interview with Cutler in the exhibition handout, this is where the art will ultimately connect with the most women, and even some men. Certainly how we experience the world can be playfully interpreted by our psyches, and reemerge in our dreams as nonsensical if not impossible situations. Cutler's art plays this role for us.

"Dinner Party," for instance, depicts women with chairs strapped to their heads with their long braids of hair. Two of the women seem almost unaware of the chairs; they prance atop a table laden with food and other oddities spilling over onto the floor. In Cutler's world, braids are the domestic glue, tethering women to the roles they're so often resigned to; and these women seem both resigned and curiously unaware, as if this is their fate and there's no point in arguing it. And yet, there's no functionality to the chairs; they suggest a curious earnestness in pursuing uselessness. This may be the darker heart of Cutler's message: a feeling of futility, an existential barrenness.

Why, then, are these images so uplifting? There's a certain dark humor in women who hang from trees via long skirts, so determinedly going about their business, whether it's falling with a broken tree branch or holding on to another for dear life, or lying in the forest with one's dress staked up like a tent - providing shelter, for whom?

Perhaps it's the notion of being seen. There is an archetypal quality to Cutler's fractured fairy tales: Jousting with umbrellas affixed like hats, normally thought of as protective, suggests a conquering, or at least an attempted conquering, of vulnerability. And the braids? For Rapunzel, her impossibly long hair was her ticket to freedom. But in the case of Cutler's women, the braids are a source of imprisonment. So there's a tacit recognition that there is no knight in shining armor, or if there is, he/she/it is not what we expect, and is certainly far from perfect. Ultimately, we're all in this thing together. We might as well enjoy it, in whatever way we can. Cutler seems to be having a great time.

Work by Amy Cutler is on view in the McCormack Forefront Gallery at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, through June 4. Call 317-923-1331 or visit for hours and information.


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