Interview: Amie Cunat at Wave Hill

Amie Cunat at Wave Hill
Amie Cunat, Hideout, 2016, flat latex paint on wall, cardboard, paper, washi paper, and acrylic, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Contributed by Danni Shen / In her most recent solo exhibition at Wave Hill, New York-based painter Amie Cunat has created a floor-to-ceiling installation, and not for the first time. Totally immersive, Hideout exemplifies Cunat’s large-scale incorporation of vibrating color juxtapositions and nebulous shapes. Originally a functional sunroom, the space is covered in the high-visibility colors of game hunting and shrouded in bright net sculptures that cascade from the ceiling. The result is decidedly anti-camouflage. In their playful goofiness, they also suggest a Dr. Seuss universe pushing against the window views of the lush summer landscape outside. Grounded in painterly gesture, Cunat’s interplay between two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms innovatively warp scale and perception. I sat down with the artist to discuss Color Field painting in the 21st Century, sculpture as mark-making, mark-making as environment and as visceral experience, the influence of a bi-racial, specifically Japanese-American, heritage on her painting practice, and more.

Amie Cunat
(Left) Amie Cunat, Cherry Curl, 2016, cardboard, washi paper and acrylic, 20 x 8 x 4 inches. (Right) Amie Cunat, Hideout, 2016, flat latex paint on wall, cardboard, paper, washi paper, and acrylic, dimensions variable. Images courtesy of the artist.

Danni Shen: First of all, how did you come to painting?
Amie Cunat: I don’t think I can pinpoint a singular event where painting retained its significance on me. There are a few memories that particularly stick out, which collectively contribute to my interest in the discipline. It’s no coincidence that visiting museums and cultural centers with my parents fostered my appreciation of historical painting and fine arts because I didn’t get this kind of exposure where I grew up. Like many artists, I discovered early on that I was already inclined to make things. I didn’t begin to paint until I attended higher education. I had three amazing mentors that widened my understanding of contemporary art. To be blunt, they educated me out of my naive perception of the discipline.

Most recently, I’ve been interested in the poeticism of the individual hand and how contours can be characterized by the intersection of fields of color, rather than line. The paintings’ forms are produced from observational drawings, works on paper, and collages. Although they’re bouncy, and at times, biomorphic, they are also sparse and the color choices are very specific.

DS: In your wall-painting sculptural installations, such as your exhibition Hideout currently at Wave Hill, does sculpture become more of a kind of painterly mark-making for you? Or does it exist between painting and object…
AC: This is something I think about a lot in my work lately, especially since I’ve been working in sculpture more often. It has to do with what kind of experience I want to generate, and by extension what kind of environment I want a person to walk through. I like to think of these installations like a big event. Something enormous happened, and these installations are the remnant of a prior act.

Amie Cunat
(Left) Amie Cunat, Sahara, 2014, casein on canvas. (Right) Amie Cunat, Still Well Delays, 2014, casein on canvas, 34 x 28 inches. Images courtesy of the artist.

The objects are like the wall paintings in that I want colors to be assigned with forms as if they were inseparable from each other—as if that particular brilliant-magenta has to have a loopy-de-loop quality. Unlike the walls, I want a significant division to occur between object and painting. I don’t make stage sets, where a prop of faux rocks seamlessly joins with a backdrop painting of mountains. All things are a bit off kilter, and I like to diminish a realist logic.

In Hideout, the most significant feature in the separation between painting and object is the net pieces’ materiality. They are cleanly constructed, but a bit crunchy-looking, and in relief. Their acrylic paint is more matte than the wall paintings’ latex paint flatness. You are also shown the edges of the objects. You are shown their thickness and volume through its textured bias. In the paintings, I deny you a lot of information about edges of forms, which I reveal in the sculpture.

DS: Can you talk about your color choices in this installation, as well as the net forms?
AC: Hideout was the first time where my color choices for an installation were aggressively linked to the environment on the exterior of the gallery. Wave Hill is an incredible garden located in near the Hudson River. It’s home to an amazing range of plant-life and greenery. When I initially began planning for the Sunroom Project Space, I had some difficulty contending with the vibrancy of its surroundings. The gallery has windows or passages on all four walls that allow for a ton of natural light to emanate into the space. This also meant that there was a ton of green and azure hues that could be seen. Rather than conform my color choices to nature, I wanted to address its difference. Oranges, magentas and tones of purple are chromatic opposites of green, blues, and yellow-green that pervade at the gardens. My choices were based on this principle in addition to the use of high visibility colors in game hunting.

I was thinking about a recent memory of a visit home to Illinois. A couple of years ago, I wanted to do an outdoor installation in a wooded area I where I used to play as a kid. At the time, my dad and I were the only ones home and he offered to help me out. Anyway, I guess it was deer season in Illinois, but my dad made me put on a bright orange vest while we went out—and when I say vest, it was more like a tween crop top, half-wind breaker/half-mini cape. In all the years I grew up in McHenry, I never worried about putting on this puny protection garment. In the way we associate magic wands with having power, this color suddenly gained a similar mysticism in terms of the way it protects…unless you’re hunting with Dick Cheney.

The way high-visibility colors “protect” is in the way they widen the distinction between an object or person in relation to their natural environment. As a result, the colors can be easily seen from other hunters, but cannot be seen by the prey. These functions are the different from camouflage, which is supposed to “assimilate” the hunter and hunted into its surroundings. In the former, the practicality tied to specificity of hue is pretty wild.

The forms in Hideout relate to camouflage/anti-camouflage, and were scaled to trump the size the human body. During the development of this installation, I discovered many different types of camouflage, but the ones I was most influenced by were ones that were made up of curvy, irregular forms. Most of these are used in jungle terrains. To a degree, I was also influenced by disruptive patterning, or camouflage patterns that use graphic, almost garish patterns that are made to misdirect rather than conform. A great example of disruptive patterning would be the razzle-dazzle patterns used on WWI military ships, where an accumulation of graphic, black and white shapes were painted of the vessels so that the enemy would be confused where to strike.

The objects allude to nets. As an object of utility, I liked how nets have great abstract terminology associated with them. Nets can capture, filter, protect, pass, conceal. They are able to hang, warp, divide, and construct spaces. These behaviors are aspects people can recognize through sculpture. Another influence regarding the nets, is camouflage netting. When camo-netting is thrown over or in front of a person, it assimilates what it holds into the surrounding environment. The Hideout nets, especially the vibrant strawberry one, is meant to do just that.

DS: As a painter interested in the trajectory of color-field painting, do you find it difficult to contend with that continuum? More specifically, how do you position yourself as an artist of Asian American, bi-racial heritage?
AC: It can be both natural and difficult for me to condemn the history of abstract painting because of its generation from a singularly dominated racial and gendered group. It is also difficult to frame me or my work as a “between” rather than “as a result”. But maybe this “betweenness” is not ethnically exclusive, and it might be something that many contemporary painters feel.

As an artist, I am a Japanese-American whose work is influenced by artists with differing ethnicities, sexes, and working among various disciplines. I am a participant in a larger conversation about the inequalities that exist as an American woman. I am interested in field and minimalist painting, utilizing color partnerships and conducting an equal exchange between subject and object. I am influenced by the works of The Hairy Who, Joseph Yoakum, Roger Brown, Lynda Benglis, Eva Hesse, Rene Magritte, Marcia Hafif, Sophie-Taeuber & Hans Arp, Anni & Josef Albers, Lily van der Stokker, Elizabeth Murray, Carl Ostendarp and many more. I also greatly admire Asian-American artists, like Ruth Asawa and Mary Lum, whose recognition and significance as a group is growing and improving.

DS: How does that inform your sensibility?
AC: Although not illustrative, a viewer can find craft impulses, use of pattern, or material choices that inform my cultural background.

DS: What are your influences?
AC: In addition to the artists I mentioned, I make abstract drawings and paintings from minute, absurd moments or objects. I enjoy physicality of sci-fi/horror film and TV show props, like the ones you’d see in the Dark Crystal, House, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Alien, The Blob, early X-Files, Journey to the Center of the Earth (the 1959, not Brendan Fraser), etc. Goofy, outrageous stuff, like how they glued the back-spikes on the lizard in Journey. Along those lines, I’m into handmade or commercially produced objects. I love obsessive collections like the Oldenberg Ray Gun or Mouse Museum, or the Roger Brown Study Collection. Japanese textile patterns as well as traditional crafts like paper making, ceramics, and relief printmaking are great sources for materiality and tactility. I am also influenced by language, using letters, awkward breaks, text, and scribbles in my work.

DS: If you had a space of unlimited capacity to create an installation, what would that “ideal” space look like?
AC: That’s a great question. I’m excited by a lot of spaces, which is the great part of making the installations, because I’m able is work with unique spaces that are not the gallery cube. The wall paintings and objects are made with peculiarities of the space in mind. I came across Womanhouse, directed by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, which was a group exhibition of Feminist artists who transformed a Los Angeles home into a place for site-specific installations and political activism, Mako Idemitsu contributing documentation of the show. I wasn’t familiar with Womanhouse until recently, and it sparked my interest in doing a series of larger installations that absorb and react to a home. I would also like to explore installing objects outdoors.

DS: So what’s next?
AC: I am very excited to share that I will be participating in the Guttenberg Arts STAR Program starting this fall. They have a great printmaking and ceramics facility, where I will be making a series of “net” objects. Next spring, I’ve been invited to have a solo show at This Friday or Next Friday in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

Biography: Cunat earned a BA from Fordham University, a post-baccalaureate degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from Cornell University. She has had solo exhibitions at Outside, North Adams, MA; Foley Gallery’s Window Installation, New York, NY; Court Tree Collective, Brooklyn, NY; The Cooper Union, New York, NY; and AIRY Gallery, Kofu, Japan. Her work has been featured in group exhibitions at Mountain, Brooklyn, NY; Ventana 244, Brooklyn, NY; Whitebox Gallery, New York, NY and Dumbo Arts Center, Brooklyn, NY. Artist residencies include Artist-Teacher Residency at The Cooper Union, Artist in Residence Yamanashi and Parsons Paris Artist Residency.

Amie Cunat: Hideout,” Sunroom Project Space, Wave Hill, Bronx, New York, NY. Through September 5, 2016.

Also on view: Joiri Minaya

About the author: Danni Shen is a writer and curator based in New York. Previously the Curatorial Fellow at Wave Hill and Social Media Director of Prospect.3 New Orleans Triennial, Shen has worked for the Beijing Today Art Museum, and the Smithsonian among other institutions. She is a contributor to Hyperallergic as well as SCREEN, a bilingual (Chinese/English) journal dedicated to contemporary media art.

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