Sara Cwynar, Gilded Age @Aldrich

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 photographic works, 5 videos, and other works, hung against white walls and displayed in darkened viewing areas in a series of connected rooms on the second floor of the museum. Curated by Amy Smith-Stewart, the exhibit includes:

  • 10 archival pigment prints, mounted on Plexiglas or Dibond, 2015, 2017, 2018
  • 1 archival pigment print triptych, mounted on Dibond, 2019
  • 1 collaged UV coated archival pigment prints mounted on Plexiglas and Dibond, 2015
  • 6 chromogenic prints, mounted on Plexiglas or Dibond, 2014, 2017
  • 3 dye sublimation prints on aluminum, 2017
  • 1 wallpaper, 2016
  • 1 artist book, full-color hardcover, 189 pages, 2014
  • 2 digital video and 16mm films on video, color silent, 2019
  • 3 16mm films on video, color sound, 2018, 2019

(Installation, detail, and video still shots below.) A catalog of the exhibition is being published, but is not yet available.

Comments/Context: When an artist begins to make the jump from solo gallery shows to solo museum shows, it’s a sign that not only has her work matured to a point that her voice consistently feels distinct, but also that the curators who are making the programming decisions feel that the ideas that form the foundation of her work are ready for a larger audience. The Canadian-born photographer Sara Cwynar has arrived at this important transition point in her artistic career, the evolution of her art over the past few years gathering noticeable momentum with each succeeding project.

This exhibit is Cwynar’s first solo museum show on the East coast, and while the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT, isn’t a massive venue, it is known for its embrace of cutting edge work and so is an excellent place to plant a flag. The show focuses on the most recent five years of her output in both photography and video, cutting away some of her earlier efforts and interleaving the various projects into one integrated whole. The installation isn’t arranged chronologically but is instead deliberately remixed, the works arranged in such a way that the straight line progression becomes a more complex exercise in doubling back and recursion.

The earliest works in the exhibit are rooted in Cwynar’s stepping stone exploration of rephotography, image reuse, and construction. She echoes the architectural forms of famous buildings in arrangements of towers of ordinary plastic cups, dinnerware, and kitchen storage, playing with both simplified forms and our sense of institutional reverence. She collages together hundreds of prints of a bust of Nefertiti, recreating the jittering digital effect of multiplied software windows in paper. And she digs into her archive of reusable pictures via cosmetic compacts and makeup cases filled with color-coded imagery and wallpaper made from melded fragments of famous paintings, making unexpected linkages and connections. In these works, she is using images to build (and/or is building to rethink images), at the same time unpacking the codes, motifs, and underlying resonances that are embedded in the commercial product shots, kitchy junk, color swatches, and images of women she uses as her raw material.

2017 seems to have been a particularly productive year for Cwynar, as she took the learnings from her previous efforts and reinvested them in works that go further. Two straightforward projects start with the aesthetics of commercial photography and then add layers of conceptual thinking. A series of close-up images of cultivated roses interrogates the essence of how we perceive color. Clichéd red rose blossoms are set against different colored backgrounds, making it difficult to distinguish between the red, pink, and magenta blooms, each of us likely seeing and defining “red” differently. Another set of still life images uses Avon aftershave bottles shaped like famous US presidents (produced for the 1976 bicentennial celebrations) as a touchstone for white male privilege – by taking off the heads, the golden busts are effectively neutered.

More layered and complex are Cwynar’s portraits of her friend Tracy. In one set, Tracy poses in a variety of pink dresses and outfits, reclining on the bumpy form of a large color grid. Again, Cwynar is testing our sense of color, our eyes naturally searching through the rectangles (in various gradients and color ranges) for the one that matches her clothing best. In another set, Tracy lounges against draped backdrops in primary colors (blue, green, pink), but our ability to actually see her is interrupted by agglomerations of objects that seem to hover right in front of her. Cwynar shoots down at the items that actually rest on top of clear plastic sheets, with the rephotographed prints of Tracy lying underneath – the effect is illusionistic and disorienting, with dense piles of found photographs, artworks, newspaper clippings, nylons, perfume bottles, and other stuff loosely alluding to female-centered narratives and thought streams.

Cwynar’s recent works continue this evolutionary path, leading to some of her most compelling photographic works yet. The triptych 141 Pictures of Sophie 1, 2 and 3 is a clear descendant of the Tracy pictures (and other Cwynar works as well), but with dense iterations of new thought. Sophie stands in a gridded skirt against against a gridded backdrop, Cwynar playing with some the same visual parallels we saw with Tracy and her colored boxes. In adjacent panels, she is multiplied out into pile upon pile of alternate versions (some of them actually other women), the cut prints physically layered and rephotographed just as in Cwynar’s Nefertiti collage. Each version of Sophie is wearing a fresh from the runway street style look from Off-White, Palm Angels, Alexander Wang and others, forcing us to think more closely about the uneasy intersection between desire, trendy looks, personality, and identity. As one integrated statement, it pulls together several disparate lines of Cwynar’s artistic thinking.

A Rococo Base finds its roots in the cluttered and interrupted Tracy images, but then turns the conceptual crank several more times. Roses (and other flowers), perfume bottles, makeup, nail polish, as well as images of architecture, ancient statuary, artworks (including a Koons/Rubens Louis Vuitton purse), and women all return, but they are now woven into an intricately structured stream of consciousness. Tiny Post-It notes and colored papers with handwritten notes fill in much of the negative space, the observations, quotes, reminders, allusions, and expositions providing the connective tissue between the objects and pictures. Part mood board, part diary, and part metastasizing multi-dimensional intellectual puzzle (dotted with optical illusions and twists of perspective), A Rococo Base requires an investment of time to attempt to “read” and decipher, but it is among the first of Cwynar’s works that seems to capture the all-over expansiveness of her intellect.

The exhibit also includes several of Cwynar’s recent videos, and these works smartly expand on the aesthetic ideas in her still images using motion, optical layering, and cuts between imagery. Two of the videos feature the pop star Christina Aguilera as Cwynar’s model, but beyond the impact of her familiar face, her platinum blonde hair, and her sultry lounging, she doesn’t do much more posing than Tracy did. The difference comes with how Cwynar uses the footage that was taken during the shoot. In one work, the Aguilera video is shown on a tabletop screen of some kind, atop which the disembodied hands of the artist continually place and readjust found images and transparencies so that they obscure the body of the singer. The effect is pleasingly frustrating, our urgent desire to watch the celebrity blocked by images of other women, famous artworks (including Edward Weston’s nude of Charis on the sand), Mickey Mouse, racing cars, clocks, and various other pictures. In the other video with Aguilera, Cwynar herself shoots into a mirror on a rotating platform, the video of the posing singer once again pushed into the background by the interruption of the various perplexing reflections. The third (and unrelated to Aguilera) video work Cover Girl adds a cinematic touch to Cwynar’s stream of consciousness visual thinking, weaving together images of makeup factories with snippets from her own shoots, all tied together by her thoughtful, question-filled voiceover into a swirling meditation on color, identity, ethics, and the perpetuation of female roles.

In many ways, Cwynar couldn’t reasonably hope for a better introductory museum survey than this one. It gathers together a variety of tightly-edited and engaging works, shows her recent progression as an artist (in the separate but related forms of photography and video), and highlights the range of her ideas as they assemble into an impressive mix of sophistication and complexity. Most importantly, it consolidates the pieces that make her work unique, connecting the dots between the “what” of her innovative techniques and the “why” of her point of view.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Sara Cwynar is represented by Foxy Production in New York (here) and Cooper Cole in Toronto (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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