The New York-based artist discusses collaboration, deskilling, and life after the end of the world.
, 2018. Oil paintings on dual LCD mount. Image courtesy of the artist and Luce Gallery.
I first came across Caitlin Cherry’s work through her excellent Instagram account, where she jokes about her art (one of her paintings mocks her for ripping off George Condo), posts pictures of her sphynx cat, and displays new work (recently, a tote bag emblazoned with a W-9 form).
Her installation at New York’s Performance Space, A Wild Ass Beyond: ApocalypseRN, brings her into collaboration with Nora N. Khan, American Artist, and Sondra Perry. The artists have transformed the space into a projection of the world they will inhabit together after the apocalypse. Their trailer home is retrofitted with surveillance cameras, a faux stained-glass window, bunk beds, and a shared library that befits artists at the end of the world: survival manuals, art books, theory texts, monographs—among them, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, the anthropologist’s examination of the cross-contaminated conditions that the matsutake mushroom thrives under, and its parallels to the circumstance of inhabitants of the Anthropocene living among “capitalist ruins.” That book is also quoted in the show’s—co-written, of course—text. A video of the artists talking together is projected in the backyard, and copies of a collectively created zine are available throughout the exhibition. We opened our correspondence by considering this idea of cross-contamination.
Zoe Dubno Your show, and much of your art, explores cross-contamination. How does this concept function in an art context, particularly in a show that’s both cross-disciplinary and collaborative?
Caitlin Cherry This group show brought together four people with different practices, but our interest in technology and science fiction connected us. We are a self-organized collaborative unit of multi-disciplinary artists ready for whatever. In this collaboration, we cross-pollinate in ways beyond what a curator would foster—our casual conversations together inspired the work.
I also always have an anti-disciplinary philosophy, which is why there is a lot of cross-contamination in my practice. It is the most natural way for me to work. When I feel like I want to be involved in something that I’m not skilled at, I learn through committing fully to it, regardless of success or failure in the end. For most of my life I wanted to be a great painter, and as I gained proficiency in painting, I realized the goal in art is not about mastery of skills or being a technician or craftsman but more about building a vocabulary. My first medium was painting, but now it’s just a word in a language—anything is game to become art.
ZD You’ve spoken about “deskilling great institutions” and the differences between a dancer’s education and that of a painter. As a teacher, a professor of printmaking and painting, do you encourage your students to reconsider the siloed nature of arts education as well?
CC Institutions of all types are built on excluding populations. Art education institutions in particular should be questioned by their students, as what they teach may not be in the best interest of every student. Practical questions like, Who built the school buildings? should be considered. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to educate artists without asking them to consider where and when the art they make takes place.
Artists are in the business of questioning everything; they’re also people who are devalued and isolated in society. So when I talk about deskilling, it comes from a place of having an MFA from Columbia University and being an adjunct art professor rotating in many schools with varying philosophies. I find the idea of skill toxic due to the wide-ranging and sometimes random value system of art in 2018—although it has always been this way … I think about Manet’s Olympia and the Paris Salon in this regard. When I teach basic painting and drawing skills, I grit my teeth. I’m concerned about perpetuating the toxic idea that art is exclusively concerned with skill. In art education there are two ways of evaluating “good”: technical and conceptual development. Each student has to create their own equation of how to balance the two.
Deskilling can operate here as a way to productively reveal one’s personal politics and self-worth. Many people will never have access to the rigors or excess of a formal art education. So let’s call it, “Deploying a strategic mediocrity and leaving space for budding artists to figure how to learn on their own.” Art is a lifelong process of both learning and unlearning ideas that extends past one’s institutional education. Letting go from mastery is not failure but an opportunity to diversify one’s skill set in other media within or outside of art so that they can become a functioning member of society.
ZD Do you figure educating artists to be a part of your practice?
CC I do consider my work as a professor to be part of my practice. I have given performative lectures at conferences and at artist talks, which play with how I think the audience perceives me in a position of power and the expectations involved with it. I am constantly amazed at the potential for powerful people’s corruption— sometimes I feel I’m already corrupted because I have been trained as an artist in a formal way—but simultaneously I’m treated as an outsider as a black woman, and people fetishize where I come from. Teaching skepticism is my specialty.