One to Watch

Exploring Open Spaces with Rhea Cutillo

For Rhea Cutillo, to paint landscapes is to confront the man-made environmental crisis that has irrevocably altered our natural spaces. In her expansive and quiet paintings, Rhea explores the open spaces untouched by industry or politics. In doing so, she contemplates the loss of such spaces, and asks what it will take to get them back. As curator Joshua Simon has said of Rhea’s work, “This loss and the ways we can begin to narrate it, is what Cutillo’s paintings communicate. With mining, fracking, dumping and piping, it is hard to see ‘land’ in ‘landscape’ anymore.” 

A native of Philadelphia, Rhea spent a decade on the West Coast, where she earned a BA from Mills College in both fine art and philosophy. She is currently working towards an MFA in painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art with a concentration in critical studies. In 2016, Rhea was invited to participate and exhibit in the prestigious List í Ljósi festival in Seyðisfjörður, Iceland. She has exhibited her work across the United States, including at The Other Art Fair in Los Angeles.

Tell us about your work.

 My work focuses on a search for open space both internally and externally. I think of my paintings as expansions into the cerebral or emotional realms. I seek open space to explore the unknown of self. At the crux of my creative process is an ambiguity of identity: What is the interior space of being uninfluenced by human constructs? My early work was concerned with non-being—that space between destruction and creation in regards to a loss of self. In 2016, I became an internationally showing artist with That Which is Past, That Which is Now – a process piece about the cycles of life and death of the self. I created this piece in Iceland, for a place that experiences long periods of darkness, and long periods of light in perpetual and necessary exchange.

Since 2016, the focus of my work has moved out of this inner space and into the physicality of open space. Where does open space still exist without political or industrial control? Recently, I am interested in absence and presence coexisting within my images. Both a dissolution and coherency of identity occur. What sense of place is created? Alan Watts explains the Buddhists’ quest for nothingness this way; it is the same nothingness (of space) that contains the entirety of existence.

How did you first get interested in your medium, and what draws you to it specifically?

I always thought of painting as very romantic. My creativity as a child was recognized, but our school system didn’t necessarily encourage the arts, especially for kids who weren’t natural drawers like me. I found my way to art school via photography, and took painting as an elective. I had no idea I’d be any good! But there was something about oil. The medium itself taught me, and I could progress on my own. I think this is a very important aspect when wanting to be a professional in any creative talent. You must be able to achieve heights through self-exploration and discipline.

I still love photography, and I think it taught me composition skills translatable into painting, but there are so many steps—location scouting or set design, directing, shooting, post production. With painting I just need to be reflective, analytic, and engaged. All I need is a place to put a canvas. Painting is both intellectual and intuitive for me, and the process is one of understanding this relationship.

Can you walk us through your process for creating a work from beginning to end?

Still not a drawer—definitely no sketching! I just go for it and work it out on the canvas. If I spend a month and the work isn’t to my liking, I paint over it. I have no qualms with destroying hours of work. Sometimes I paint from my head, other times directly from a photograph. Mostly, I am inspired by a photo—whether I take just the composition or color as inspiration, or I work off it in the beginning. There’s definitely a time to put it down, though, and let the painting become it’s own. There is a conversation between using the medium to my will and letting the medium lead me. . .  My paintings generally take 6 months to over a year to finish. The last strokes have some magic in them—it finalizes this object becoming separate from me.

What are you working on next?

My current series is called Inquiries Into Permanence—it explores natural phenomena that exist as constant change. Change is important. Humanity’s consciousness is shifting. The systems we’ve created are breaking and it’s a good thing—it has to break so that it can transform. I’ve never been afraid of change, and one of my biggest strengths (in art too) is to be mutable. I find it odd when people have such a resistance to it. It is necessary to life. My next large scale series, I think, is going to focus on archiving disappearing space. I’ve been collecting old color slides from the ’60s of the Great West—land that has been mowed and developed by now. These images will be a starting point.

How does your work comment on current social or political issues?

My paintings force the viewer to confront the current manmade environmental crisis. There is a logic regarding the anthropocene at work—that it’s too big for any individual to intervene with, and the same time a precondition for any human action. Curator Joshua Simon says of my work: “This loss and the ways we can begin to narrate it, is what Cutillo’s paintings communicate. With mining, fracking, dumping and piping, it is hard to see ‘land’ in ‘landscape’ anymore.” And indeed, what is the genre of landscape painting without addressing the loss of our land, water, and native creatures?

Love reading about all things art? You can have articles from Canvas, curated collections, and stories about emerging artists delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for the Saatchi Art Newsletter.

About the Author

Bethany Fincher is a curator at Saatchi Art. Need help finding art? Contact her via our free Art Advisory service at saatchiart.com/artadvisory.