Discovered objects and images play a vital role in the work of Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based artist Sara Cwynar. Her practice blends collage, still life and portraits in photographic and filmic forms, incorporating material sourced on eBay, or at flea markets and the like. So when the opportunity arose to hold an exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art last autumn, followed by a show at Milwaukee Art Museum this spring, it seemed a serendipitous moment to unearth works incorporating items from an archive close by.
“Some of the pictures that I’ve used as source material over the years came from an eBay seller who bought the archive of an old photo studio in Milwaukee,” she explains. “I think it was operational from the 1950s to the 1970s or so, and it closed down a long time ago. I like that they tie in to the location; I have repurposed some of the negatives from that for this show.”
Still-life images of a phone, a paint set and various examples of old beer packaging have found their way into the exhibition, which is titled Image Model Muse and runs from 08 March to 21 July. It will look back over the key bodies of work from Cwynar’s oeuvre, touching on themes from advertising and colour theory, to what she terms ‘soft sexism’.
At its core are a series of films, including centrepiece Rose Gold, which looks at the “emotional effect of colour, and how that’s used to sell things” through the lens of Apple’s rose-gold iPhone, and Soft Film, which addresses feminism, power dynamics and value systems, and stars an impressive collection of velvet jewellery boxes that Cwynar found on eBay.
Created like a work of assemblage and narrated with the rich baritone of a male voiceover (with the occasional gentle interjection from Cwynar herself), these films are vivid, satisfying and engrossing. They’re often funny, too, encouraging the viewer to acknowledge the harsh nature of contemporary society even as they make us laugh at our own complicity. Watching them feels like being poked and tickled at the same time.
Alongside these two films – and a third, Cover Girl, an examination of colour in the cosmetics industry – Cwynar will show her ongoing series of portraits of her good friend, Tracy Ma. The images touch on the same themes of feminism, colour theory and technology that permeate Rose Gold, and the same referential language of taking photographs, exposing the artifice behind the act. “I’ve been photographing her for years,” Cwynar explains.
She describes the works as “classic mid-century style portraits of Tracy reclining, always in the same position. She’s a graphic designer and an art director, so I feel she poses with the history of representations of women in mind – it’s a parody of a classic studio portrait of a woman.” Her image is combined with found photographs of other women, and historical representations of women, and the obsolete design objects that appear in a lot of Cwynar’s work.
The artist met Ma, who is now visual editor on the Styles desk at The New York Times, at university in Canada, where they studied design together. It was here, Cwynar explains, that she first started to think critically about how images can be used to sell. “Our design education was by no means only about advertising, but there was a component of that,” she explains.
On finishing, she spent three years working at The New York Times as a designer. “Even though it’s not that commercial a design job, it did get me thinking about making images for a larger public – and how, if you put something into the world, everyone will interpret it in a different way that you can’t anticipate. That started this whole part of my work that was about the lives of images and design objects and how things warp and change in value and in meaning over time.”
In the past three or four years, she continues, it’s shifted again, to focus on the arbitrariness of value specifically. “I used to be more interested in meaning, and how meaning shifts when things are put out into the world,” she says. “But now I have been thinking about why we value the things that we value. It just seems important, I guess, in this current moment. And I am trying to use some of the tools of design, to criticise the way design works.”
In the “racist patriarchy under capitalism that we live in” (a line she delivers with a smile), Cwynar’s works – luscious, soothing and tactile as they are – function like a Trojan horse.