SaraCwynar_Interview_Install_01

Sara Cwynar (b. 1985, Vancouver) is a New York based artist working in photography and installation. She has exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam and Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto, as well as exhibitions at The Camera Club of New York, Printed Matter, and The Contact Photography Festival. The publication of her second book Kitsch Encyclopedia is scheduled for winter 2014. She is represented by Cooper Cole Gallery where she recently had her second solo exhibition, Flat Death. Until recently, she was a staff graphic designer at the New York Times Magazine.


Acropolis (Plastic Cups), 2013
Chromogenic print, 24 x 20″
© Sara Cwynar


Corinthian Temple (Plastic Cups), 2013
Chromogenic print, 24 x 20″
© Sara Cwynar

Arianne Di Nardo: The title of your latest series, Flat Death, is a term many may recognize from Barthes’ Camera Lucida. How did this concept inform your methodology; moreover, the themes at play in your work?

Sara Cwynar: For Barthes, the other punctum, the “prick” of the photograph is time, what he calls the “that-has-been” and its “pure representation” in photographic form – how a photo can palpably show you what was – bringing it back to life, while also showing you what is no more. The image produces death while trying to preserve life. I really like this idea for two reasons: first, in relation to resurrecting refuse and re-presenting it in photographic form; second, in terms of how all photographs work.

Barthes suggests this defeat of time is much more tactual in historical photographs; that “This punctum is more or less blurred beneath the abundance and disparity of contemporary photographs.” He wrote in the ’70s, and I wonder how this idea relates to our contemporary experience with images – not so much as individual objects but as a steady stream, largely undifferentiated from one another. It seems an important idea to rediscover. I also thought about this in relation to the supposed death of printed photographs; what does it mean that even the physical reproduction of the thing in the past is gone, that it increasingly never existed, but only passes on by screen? Barthes proposed that the photographic object could be destroyed, yellowed, dead, like anything else. Which is a nice metaphor.

The process began by materializing these ideas using a mix of contemporary and antiquated objects and images: decontextualized stock photos, digital and analog processes, resampling both objects and printed photographs in order to bring them forward and show they existed. At the same time, I wanted to remind the viewer that the originals are gone, and I was thinking about the effect these images might have on a shared visual consciousness.

I interact for hours and hours with found, saved, and collected images and objects in the studio. I hope that my work method might carve a space for dialogue on the ways that images work, on questioning aesthetic tropes, on spectatorship, on the reading of visuals. How many objects and images get discarded in the constant process of generating new ones? These concerns have come to the fore of my practice, after working for the New York Times and other editorial or commercial jobs, where I made the same type of pictures that I’m trying to mess with here.

AD: How did you create these images? What are they made from?

SC: My process begins with a massive personal archive of found objects, and involves reprinting and reworking the images, taking them out of collective spaces and into ones open for personal intervention. Most of the reference images are culled from pop-culture, some are deeply familiar, and others more obscure but still recognizable; still lifes of floral arrangements and gold watches, “how to” manuals, pictures of Greek monuments, nature scenes, pictures of books from old magazines, etc. I am reconstructing vernacular images with found objects and materials from public archives to recreate still lifes on my own terms. I thought a lot about the aesthetic patterns you see in these pictures – a particular lighting, a slickness, a high level of detail. I’m also trying to recycle and subvert conventions of product and commercial photography by using elements that aren’t normally associated with these genres – objects that are now discarded or forgotten, intentional scuffing, not glossy at all.


Man And Space (Books 2), 2013
Chromogenic print, 24 x 20″
© Sara Cwynar


Our Natural World (Books 1), 2013
Chromogenic print, 24 x 20″
© Sara Cwynar

AD: Your practice tends toward an animated obsession with the categorical, with the coded nature of imagery and visual culture. With regards to Flat Death, what are you suggesting about the gaze and the viewing process, about the retrieval and processing of visual information?

SC: I am trying to create Trompe-l’œil images, making a rather mundane image-object difficult to read in order to slow down the process altogether. I want to foreground the experiential, so the photo reveals itself to the viewer as a construction, and asks to be unpacked. The saturation of images in everyday life conditions us to read pictures without really looking at them; I am trying to build that experience into the act of looking.

Of particular interest to me are pictures from the analog era, when there was still a sense that the world could be categorized objectively through images, that the whole thing could be preserved on film. Obviously, that system failed but I think of my process as another way of categorizing the world. I used a found nature photograph of a toucan and reconstructed it with Post-it notes; I recreated encyclopedia images of Greek monuments using found plastic cups; took an image from a book called Picturing the Times of our Lives, enlarged and rephotographed it on a red easel in my studio; I scanned objects from a collection of old darkroom manuals marked with digital noise; I rebuilt the color patterns of floral still lifes using hundreds of found objects. The works are really obsessive – scanning and reworking images hundreds of times to produce an exact effect. In Flat Death, what looks 3D is flat, what looks “beautiful” is made up of junk, what might look old is new; there is a constant mixing of analog and digital process, of contemporary objects with dated imagery. I utilize various systems to confuse the viewing process.


Installation view, Flat Death
Cooper Cole Gallery, 2013
© Sara Cwynar


Installation view, Flat Death
Cooper Cole Gallery, 2013
© Sara Cwynar

AD: The “photographer’s studio” is another trope you subvert; it appears that some of these photos are spliced and re-assembled with duct tape, that you’ve left technical and film information visible. So, indeed, these are not customary iterations on the still life. You mentioned the floral reproductions, which really stood out to me at one of your recent shows; they are large in scale, and from afar truly resemble their primary source. But upon closer examination – and they do beckon the viewer to examine – one sees that these floral arrangements are photographed aerially, and further, composed of ephemera that bears little relation to flora. In fact, most of the objects used to recreate the still lifes are materially synthetic. What were you looking to say through the construction of these works?

SC: I am very interested in the ways that images adapt, how they age, especially with regard to stock and studio photography. They’re all made up of different objects I’ve collected, things that fill household junk drawers, things that are essentially garbage. So this faux-beautiful image of a flower, this artistic cliché, reveals itself to be made of “valueless” things. It’s referencing obsolete technology, analog photographic processes, vanitas symbolism (death motifs, skulls, flowers, candles), faded plastics, and a lot of warped colors. I use the objects to rebuild the tones in the printed matter, which in this case is found images of floral studio still lifes. I play with their underlying conventions, their original intent – for instance by shooting from above instead of the side, as seen in the original. The obsolescence of these images really shows – you are exactly aware of how much the aesthetic has changed with time, transforming an ideal into something that looks absurd, ugly, even sinister. In many ways these bouquets are the most benign, unloaded source image I can think of. For this reason especially, floral still lifes have had pull for many artists (Brendan Fowler comes to mind) – it is almost an empty canvas to work with.


Contemporary Floral Arrangement 1 (Many Perennials Can Be Used In Arrangements Such As This For Winter Decoration), 2013
Chromogenic print, 60 x 44″
© Sara Cwynar


Contemporary Floral Arrangement 2 (Plate 24. Color Changes And Natural Colors Are Combined Effectively In This Mass Arrangement Of Contemporary Style), 2013
Chromogenic print, 60 x 44″
© Sara Cwynar


Contemporary Floral Arrangement 3 (Flowers Arrangements 12, 683 (1963), 2013
Chromogenic print, 60 x 44″
© Sara Cwynar

AD: I think you’ve also created an opportunity to consider the “Death Drive,” especially as it pertains to vernacular photography; and I like that you manipulate that, or at least try to negotiate the anxieties that permeate cultural and utilitarian refuse in consumption society. With that in mind, could you expand on the concept of “aesthetic offensiveness” that kind of imbues these dated magazine clippings and archival images? Where do you think that vulgarity comes from?

SC: I think it’s a combination of technology and taste reflected through images. Old pictures might look odd because technology was different – it marks the image and often makes it look less valuable, less tasteful; this is especially true with regard to commercial genres, where a high level of value is important. Some of it is also that ideas of taste morph so rapidly. In my experience, it’s something that people in commercial photography aren’t really thinking about. We would sort of ogle these super-dated, campy images – but then how do you know you’re not just making more of the same; that in 30 years, your picture won’t look like that to somebody else? I think it likely will. This is something I try to build into my work.

There seems to be a point where something aesthetically ugly or discarded can warp back into being almost-nice; when the value of an image changes, it often starts to appeal to me. Value in visual culture is a concept articulated well by W.J.T. Mitchell, who suggested that images become like biological entities, some gaining value well beyond their actual worth. “Fine art” is a good example of this, or religious iconography – while others lose it rapidly. I’m interested in the ones that lose value, or devolve into kitsch. This quality is highly evident in certain pictures, in food photography, for instance. Think of a ‘70s, orange-toned photo of a steak covered in sauce, or the pink foods of the ’60s. Product shots, especially studio photography, were really heavily stylized. Mitchell says that the separation of good from bad, ugly from beautiful, is the fundamental task of criticism; in my understanding, to parse through pictures and decide what constitutes good taste. I like this idea – that taste is subjective or that only certain people may curate it, whereas my taste tends more toward kitsch or something classically tasteless. This is what has value to me and so I can make it “good taste” in a way, I can make it have value for others. When I select my images, I always try to choose the ones that have had their value questioned somehow.


Gold – NYT April 22, 1979 (Alphabet Stickers), 2013
Chromogenic print, 30 x 40″
© Sara Cwynar

Another common quality of this “aesthetic offensiveness” is a sort of faux-elegance, or a faux-value. I like the way these things read in art photographs; for example, this strange still life of a bunch of gold watches sitting like cobras on bars of gold – this was the source image for Gold – NYT April 22, 1979 (Alphabet Stickers). There is so much gold worked in that this “classy” material just sort of folds on itself and becomes ugly. Another example is the plastic cups in some of my images: I mimic Corinthian columns, ancient architecture, even Mayan ruins by using neon green plastic – and I found them all at junk stores in bulk bags. I love how many levels removed these things are from the actual structures, how they are another way of making an image of an over-photographed monument. Color also plays a big role in the “aesthetic offensiveness” of dated imagery – how it warps and how far from the natural it can get. I am drawn to weird plastic colors; there is a great essay by Barthes about plastic as a material, about how it tries so hard to replicate natural colors, but is never able to do it.


Toucan In Nature (Post It Notes), 2013
Chromogenic print, 30 x 40″
© Sara Cwynar

AD: Regarding meaning and value in art and creative production: do the items you’ve used have “value” to you, or are they simply objects to be recycled, maybe even just sad junk? Is there space for them in contemporary society, and if so, to what extent?

SC: I love this phrase, “sad junk!” I’m a consummate saver of things, a bit of a hoarder, which provides material for much of my practice. I use photography to categorize and re-present this ever-growing personal collection of saved materials. Some of these things do hold sentimental value and were pillaged from my parents’ basement – the old TV remote from my childhood is in one photo, a box of family slides, a mug my Dad always had. Others I found at the dollar store. I pick them each for different reasons; some resonate with the history of photography and still life traditions, while others are simply objects with an aesthetic strangeness that appeals to me.

I don’t think there is room for a lot of this stuff in contemporary society – that’s part of why it interests me, this vast accumulation of stuff that trails behind us. If you are going to put new work in the world, it seems important to consider all the stuff that was already thrown away. There is a consumerist element to it – that most of us live surrounded by piles of this type of junk. These things have no more use-value so maybe I can make them have art-value. There is a lot of discussion about photographs in the world being free of referential ties – I like these objects because together they seem truly rooted in the everyday, in the mundane; junk objects that most people accumulate to some degree.

I save passages from literature where people describe throwing away things they once saved. There is a great one at the end of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, where he names a bunch of objects that are actually pictured in my photos; and I hadn’t even thought about this passage while working. He writes:

I threw away picture-frame wire, metal book ends, cork coasters, plastic key tags, dusty bottles of Mercurochrome and Vaseline, crusted paint brushes, caked shoe brushes, clotted correction fluid. I threw away candle stubs, laminated placemats, frayed pot holders. I went after the padded hangers, the magnetic memo clipboards. I was in a vengeful and near savage state. I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible.

I think this speaks to how common the experience is – we all keep this stuff in our homes and everyone has a sort of giant “archive” of things that were never thrown away.


Tree In Nature (Darkroom Manual), 2013
Chromogenic print, 24 x 20″
© Sara Cwynar

AD: I think the overarching theme in Flat Death is the disruption of learned patterns of looking-at, of processing tropes and visual information. Also, as you’ve mentioned, the clash between old and new – be it aesthetics, production processes, or objects. But these are very rich, loaded, tender, even exuberant images, especially in person, due to their scale. I don’t see this so much as a clash, per say, but as bridging the old and new. So what role does nostalgia play in your practice?

SC: DeLillo says, “nostalgia is a settling of grievances between the present and the past.” Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do in small gestures with these pictures – give some space to historical images and objects that continue to resonate with me. There is a great nostalgia in photography to begin with – the fact that you make a record of experience each time you shoot, a nostalgia for analog techniques, a nostalgia for the printed image. I also see a kind of “anti-nostalgia” now – a lot of work that goes all the way to the other end and has a sort of pure digital or computer-based aesthetic and process. I am nostalgic for old techniques and materials, and have an interest in the way most things (including imaging technologies) cycle out of relevance.

Then, on another level, my art practice began with a sort of nostalgic impulse to save, re-arrange, re-present, keep things that might have disappeared if I didn’t save them. I find great satisfaction in resurrecting things that are about to go away, making small breaks in the slide to obsolescence that happens constantly. I guess I have nostalgia for old pictures, wrapped in a love for the way that pictures get away from us – how they accumulate, morph and endure. Certainly there is an intense nostalgia involved in hoarding and collecting, which could be a whole other discussion – the idea of making a physical manifestation of yourself through the things and images you save, some sort of external record that will live on, of never being able to throw something away. That is a deeply nostalgic, existential thing.


Time Is Up (Darkroom Manual), 2013
Chromogenic print, 24 x 20″
© Sara Cwynar

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