Sara Cwynar: Between Kitsch and the Hyperreal

Sara Cwynar is one of the striking voices of a new generation of visual artists working in photography with a special interest in the aesthetics of analogue procedures. 

432 Photographs of Nefertiti, 2015 © Sara Cwynar

Sara Cwynar’s practice moves between photography, installations and collage and starts with obsessively collecting and ordering visual materials. Saving, taking and re-composing images is a cathartic means of satisfying a constant impulse to collect and to create a tangible record of her experience, grasping a small piece of the world and reconstituting it according to her own terms. The resulting archive is composed of images saved over years of her own photo-taking, from encyclopaedias, flea markets, as well as objects she encounters. In this process of accumulation and the resulting collection, she is interested in the ways in which we understand the world through pictures: how we view ourselves and our history through a shared image-based archive built from cultural fantasies and photographic tropes.

A key characteristic of Cwynar's method is the investigative attitude she applies to the photographic image and its representation, with photography itself as the most important subject. Her attitudes are very much defined by the internet era and how our concept of the world is influenced by commercial and promotional photography. Artists like Matt Lipps, Lucas Blalock and Daniel Gordon all share a special interest in the specific qualities of both analogue and digital photography while working in traditional genres and forms. They use found images, from printed sources and the internet. They cut, rearrange and compose, add, layer, manipulate, and play with the tension between the two- and three dimensional. They combine hybrid approaches so that the process is just about as important as the end result.

Although Photoshop is used for specific effects, its traces can be noticed in the final work. Instead of using the tool to conceal, Cwynar finds ways to make it reveal or emphasize the process.

“Most often, the way I work is through sourcing printed material from various magazines, books or encyclopaedias. I then scan these images into digital files and blow them up much larger than the originals, printing them out as laser prints and re-tiling them back into the original picture. I will also sometimes improperly scan found printed matter to mark an analogue print with digital noise, mixing old images with contemporary imaging technologies. I then rebuild the images in different ways using a combination of contemporary and older, discarded materials. I re-photograph the construction in the studio and print it back out as a photograph, making a new still-life image out of a found one. It is a circular process: beginning with a photograph and flattening it back into a new version after much intervention and manipulation. The pictures go through several rounds of digital and analogue photo processes before I have a final.”

Liquify Grid 5, 2015 © Sara Cwynar

Although there’s an obvious sympathy for the vintage feel of photography from the sixties and seventies in Cwynar’s works, that is only a first impression: “As nostalgic and analogue as my work is, it's often responding to the internet—I'm not just fetishizing these images, but responding to the way we experience images now. You look at my photographs, and you read it in an instant as you do with everything, and then hopefully you realize, "Oh, wait, it's not quite that"—maybe you could think about everything you're looking at a little bit more, maybe you notice some of the objects as things you own or relate to, or you could have the process thrown into question.”

With a background in graphic design, Cwynar has a special sense for the visual qualities of an image and how to manipulate it. In her earlier works she focused on common images, particularly outdated advertising still-lifes. For the series Color Studies 1-6 (2012) she followed the formula of the commercial still life to systematically organize everything in her studio. She used colour scale (a visually immediate category) to arrange her materials into surreal versions of conventional consumer still-life photographs and taxonomies of single-image types formed into collages. This piece pulls from many images she has saved of outdated product shots in which something that was historically desirable and forward-looking becomes absurd with the passage of time.

All the Greens, 2011 © Sara Cwynar

However, most of her three-dimensional practice finds place to stage a picture within the studio. She’s interested in raising tension by adding real objects to her presentation as she did for the exhibition Everything in the Studio (Destroyed) in Foam’s 3h space for young talents (2013). On a wallpaper she presented an image of a culmination of objects she collected and installed in one of the corners of her studio. After taking a picture, she destroyed the installation and got rid of the objects. For her presentation she re-installed a wide range of objects onto it, creating a monumental tableaux of banal objects, fruit and plants, mirroring the original situation and causing optical confusion between the image and the real props at the same time.

Everything in the Studio (Destroyed) in Foam 3h, 2013 © Christian van der Kooy

Her fascination for ordinary objects is rooted in literature and theory: “I refer often to Milan Kundera’s concept of kitsch which he defines in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as the familiar images we look at in order to ignore all that is not aesthetically appealing about life (examples are national and religious motifs, monuments, idealized nature, advertising imagery, symbols of progress). These images make up much of the common archive.” She expanded upon this concept of kitsch in relation to pictures in her second publication Kitsch Encyclopedia (2014), a book that compiles texts by Kundera, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard alongside her own writing and collected photographs to draw out the ways in which images are used in the construction of a collective consciousness in a world that is layered with kitsch.

Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations (1981) is an important reference, especially for his definition of kitsch as a manifestation of the hyperreal, as simulations of the world that have started to matter more than the reality they represent. “In my works I am trying to foreground the fact that images change without us and that they often obscure their status as constructions, seeming like presentations of reality even when they are highly manipulated. I am trying to make pictures that show their falseness on their surface. I’m interested in how pictures accumulate, morph, endure, get away from us and become something different to what was originally intended. I try to highlight these changes—how images warp with the passing of time and changing trends and with a divorce from original context. It is not just form that changes as images move through space but also function, value, and use.”

Man 1, 2015 © Sara Cwynar

Her recent series are still based on found images, but she has shifted from the genre of still-life to the representation of portraiture in photography. The tactile aspects of the image have an important presence, especially in the manner she treats both the represented skin of the human body, painted skin or skin of sculpture, as opposed to the surface of the paper.

Cwynar comments playfully on the fundamentals of photography and its tradition of composition, genre and aesthetics by constructing her own personal archive as a method of intervening in the larger archive, which is out of her control. She’s considering the life of photographs over time, especially at this time of change for the medium. As systematically as she works with ordering the world through images and objects, she’s exploring how our idea of the world is defined through pictures over time, how dreams and desires are created – between kitsch and the hyperreal.

About Sara Cwynar 

Sara Cwynar (b. 1985, Canada) is a New York based artist working in photography, installation and book-making. In 2013 she held her first museum show at Foam with the exhibition Everything in the Studio (Destroyed). She is represented by Foxy Production, New York, and Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.

All images from the series FLAT DEATH and other pictures © Sara Cwynar, courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production, New York, and Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto.

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