Cary Hulbert has a very active imagination. The New York-based artist and curator is fond of tacking animal body parts onto gooey flowers, creating animal-plant hybrids that entice with their juicy colors and odd assemblies. In Hulbert’s off-kilter fantasy world, flora and fauna exist together in a fluid state of being, swapping genes and cross-pollinating without human interference.
To create her drawings, Hulbert uses a combination of colored pencil, gouache, and screen-printing on Mylar or transparent paper, which allows her to use both the front and back. “This translucent quality of the work contributes to a state of unreality,” Hulbert writes in her artist statement. “Part imagined and part longed for, the universe in these works is a world where anything is possible.” The fantastical elements in Hulbert’s work are also emphasized by her dreamy color palettes, which coat her overgrown landscapes in washes of soft, monochromatic color. It’s as though we’ve landed on a strange planet with a pink or green sun, where everything is stained in a layer of colored light.
Hulbert’s drawings have a wild, romantic feel to them, as though an exciting expedition lies just over the next horizon. The artist, however, is careful to exclude humans from her surreal vision. Instead, her peculiar ecosystems are mostly populated by feral dogs, and sometimes snakes. “The animals I use are highly symbolic and typically with mythological ties,” she notes. “For example, dogs or dog-like creatures appear with a particular frequency, a nod to the once wild, now tamed animals, acting as an essential link between our human world and the environments I've placed them in.”
The snakes, too, hold a wealth of metaphorical meaning. In Christinity, they symbolize deceit, evil, and temptation, but Hulbert, like ancient Egyptians and indiginous North Americans, believes the serpent to be a symbol for rebirth and renewal. Her landscapes imagine a world where animal and plant kingdoms carry out natural cycles of birth, death, and renewal without interference一it’s a world where humans never evolved and never will.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Cary Hulbert discusses the influence of Surrealism on her work, how to build a supportive art community, and the abusive tendencies of galleries and museums toward young artists.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
CH: Books by bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde. You should also be surrounded by artists who inspire you, so many art books—also, some good fiction, including graphic novels. Y the Last Man, by Brian K. Vaughan, is a graphic novel I recommend to everyone.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
CH: This changes all the time. Maybe Leonora Carrington or Frida Kahlo.
What are you trying to express with your art?
CH: Somewhere I'd rather be. A world without humans. A surreal morphing, otherworldly existence.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
CH: I certainly have; most artists have. It's a tricky question since it's hard to control exposure. But at this point in my life, I firmly believe in paying a fair wage in exchange for labor. So I will write my answer as no, although I know that's a trade that is deeply part of the art world.
What person has most influenced your work?
CH: I'm going to answer with a movement and not a single person because I honestly can't point to one person. Surrealism, it’s what I was fascinated with when I was in high school and undergrad. It definitely aided in creating my aesthetics. It's interesting to hear about which movements or artists people were first drawn to and how that affected their practice as a whole, even years later.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
CH: That's such an interesting question. Every time I accomplish something, it quickly becomes not good enough, and I turn my attention to the next thing. I don't know, maybe the art community I'm a part of. I think about how lucky I am almost every day to have the in-real-life and the online art community I have. I've made so many amazing artist friends over the years. All of that came from artistic pursuits, exhibitions, an MFA program, residencies, etc. So I think that answer counts.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
CH: It’s advice Brian Burkhardt gave while giving an artist talk my senior year in undergrad. I'm going to paraphrase: "One person will love your work, one person will hate your work, and no one else will give a shit." I use this for everything. It's a good reminder to do whatever you want to do. Over-caring what other people think about your work can be problematic.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
CH: What a timely question! I work at Columbia University, which is currently in the spotlight for its high prices, and rightfully so. If you can get it for free or cheap, yes. I paid a good amount for my BFA and MFA, and I don't regret it. However, it would be REALLY nice if I didn't have that debt. Art is a practice; you need to learn about materials, techniques, meet other artists, create and build community, and a BFA and MFA give you the time and network to do that. I want to make it clear that I believe the majority of programs are far too expensive and leave us in a world where it's difficult to pay off that debt.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
CH: How the art world pays and treats people. I follow Change the Museum and cancelartgalleries on Instagram, and I feel that the art world can be abusive, especially to young artists. Pay a living wage and treat people with kindness.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
CH: I ended up creating a whole new practice and an entirely new body of work, which also led me to rent a studio space. Basically, it gave me time, and I used that time to make and keep my mind in an OK spot.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
CH: I think online galleries are here to stay. Of course I would say this as I opened an online gallery, Project Gallery V, with my good friend Trinity Lester during quarantine. I also think a lot of people are buying work off Instagram and online sites without seeing the work first, and some of those buyers are new people looking to support local artists. All good things for emerging artists as well as accessibility to art.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
CH: I'm working on 20 x 16 inch drawings, eight of which will be shown at the Bronx Museum in Bronx Calling: The Fifth AIM Biennial from October 20, 2021 to January 16, 2022.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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