Photo of Brittni Cute by Big Mike PhillipsTry this: Grab a transparent drinking glass and fill it with water. Then, while looking at the glass straight on, drop in something thick—mustard, honey, barbecue sauce, whatever. Now, describe what that something looks like as it falls to the bottom of the glass.
“Blob” is probably as descriptive as it gets, right?
Photographer Brittni Cute can tell you about the shapes that substances like calligraphy ink, acrylic paint, even turpentine take on as they move through water—how they morph into otherworldly forms that are otherwise imperceptible to the naked eye. Her photographs show shapes so intricate that viewers sometimes have a hard time believing what they're seeing. Her most recent series, for instance—drops of silver rooftop paint—shows the liquid taking on such remarkable forms that some people assume they're looking at a sculpture Cute created with her hands. (“Egyptian,” on the cover of this week's CityBeat, is from that series.)
A purist who shoots primarily with film and adheres to the principle that none of her images be digitally altered or manipulated, Cute might spend 15 hours in the studio and end up with only a couple of keepers. It can be a frustrating, tedious, sometimes messy process. Oil-based substances float, meaning she can fish them out and take more shots. Other times, her whole set-up's ruined in milliseconds.
“The heavier the liquid, the faster it falls,” she says. “That one”—referring to the roof paint—“it really was pretty instantaneous. As soon as it hits the water, you've got to get it. With the inks, you have more time because they're a little more fluid through the water rather than just sinking to the bottom.”
Cute, who turned 29 this month, grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and studied photography at Ohio University. After a stint doing commercial photography in New York, she decided to go the fine-arts route.
“I was really looking for something I could construct and have complete control of,” she says. Macro photography had always appealed to her: “taking a look at things that are here every day and are ordinary, but taking a deeper look at them.”
Cute says her work is inspired by music—mainly beat patterns like the so-called “riddims” of reggae (Gregory Issacs' “Leggo Beast” plays is the background on her website, www.bcutephotography.com). Another series, with titles like “Counterpoint,” “Syncopation” (pictured to the right) and “Swing,” was inspired by jazz. Her husband, Sean Cute, owns The Ruby Room, a nightclub in Hillcrest, where Cute's constantly exposed to various genres of music. She'll hear something and wonder what the sound might look like if it were to take a physical shape.
“What kind of figure comes to mind when you're listening to a certain kind of music?” she says. “It's really the image I see in my head—the mind's-eye thing.” Though, she acknowledges her subject matter's unwieldiness: “It's not like you can control it, but you can get pretty close.”
Cute does all her shoots in her dining room. She constructs the backdrop for each photograph and uses small- to medium-size glass tanks or enclosed containers if she's adding movement (if you visit The Ruby Room, Cute has two light-box prints to the left of the bar, showing waves and splashes of dyed-red turpentine). Through trial and error, she's figured out which substances blend well and which don't.
“I go into the art store or the hardware store and just grab things,” she says, “and, in the safest way possible, just start mixing stuff together.”
Though she's gotten some tips from a friend doing graduate work in chemistry, “I've gotten myself into situations—working with turpentine—and it turned out not to be such a great situation. My husband comes in, ‘What are you doing?'”
Cute's exhibited her work nationally since 2002 (locally, you can see her work at Mixture in Little Italy) and, for the first time last month, participated in an international exhibit. The show, at a London gallery, was curated by Samir Chala, who runs the San Diego-based Kin Agency and founded the arts-and-philanthropy organization Gallery Without Borders (www.gallerywithoutborders.org). The two met last year when Chala stopped at Cute's booth in front of The Ruby Room during a now-defunct monthly art walk along University Avenue in Hillcrest.
In addition to the London show, at the end of this month, Cute will have three pieces in a show in Milan, Italy. And, a couple of weeks ago, a collector in Geneva bought one of her photographs.
This brings up the question of the future. Too often, artists leave San Diego for bigger cities to get more exposure. But, for now, Cute sees no benefit in leaving. It was her and Sean's goal to build a family business—she does The Ruby Room's books, tends bar a few nights a week and curates a monthly art show there.
“I love San Diego,” she says. “We've been here for, I guess, six years now. I don't feel like moving somewhere else would be better for my career.”
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Video of Brittni Cute by El Roberto Productions.