Sara Cwynar by Ashley McNelis & Legacy Russell

The origins of nostalgia and some theoretical foundations of photography.

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Sara Cwynar 1

Toucan in Nature (Post-It Notes), 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

I was first introduced to Sara Cwynar’s work while studying at Goldsmiths in London. My research explored the construct of what I call “social shrines”—creative manifestations wherein artists make use of and document everyday actions as a means of commenting on and elevating socio-cultural practices. My own creative and academic practice both revolve around an investigation of how ritual manifests itself in the spaces of the everyday. How can the banal be beatific? In what way have ideas of worship been redressed by modern American culture? How does ritual manifest in spaces ordinarily designed as secular? Cwynar’s work speaks to these questions by toying with camp popular visual tropes in a deft manipulation that presents a topography of North American consumption and cultural experience. Continuing in a long line of female assemblage artists, ranging from Vadis Turner to Amalia Mesa-Bains, in combining objects Cwynar offers an elevation of the familiar to that of the fantastic, desirous relics of the ordinary that reignite one’s appreciation of daily objects. In addition to beginning her MFA in photography at Yale University this fall, Cwynar recently published two books, Kitsch Encyclopedia (Blonde Art Books, 2014) and Pictures of Pictures (Printed Matter, 2014). My co-interviewer, Ashley McNelis, was first introduced to Cwynar’s work through these publications. We both sat down with the artist to learn more about what makes her encyclopedic kitsch stick. 

—Legacy Russell. 

Legacy Russell What are some primary influences in your work?

Sara Cwynar I am influenced by a whole mass of stuff but to pick a few: food photography, discarded commercial still lives, people’s vacation snapshots, amateur nudes, stock images, all sorts of photographic tropes and how these circulate, change in value, and help us to form meanings. I am interested in the way that these vernacular types of images help shape our view of the world and how this changes over time, a sort of life of images and the visible fading of certain ideals. The way that something fashionable can become absurd with time and changing ideas of taste. The most stylish photos are often the ones that date the most rapidly. A good example would be commercial food photography where an image that once looked delicious comes to look disgusting as the picture fades (a lot of orangey browns proliferate in this type of imagery from the 1960s and ’70s) and the idea of what this sort of image should look like changes. I am also invested in saving the images and objects that get discarded in the process of making new ones, all these other throwaway, valueless things that went into making the ones we value so much right now, but only for a moment.

Ashley McNelis Would you say that nostalgia has an important presence in your photographs?

SC My interest in nostalgia comes from a few places. The first is connected to this question of value in images. I think that in order to see how a picture has changed, how it has gone from being something important to something nobody wants, or the opposite, it has to be marked by time, you simply can’t see this yet in a contemporary image because it hasn’t happened yet. This is also related to kitsch, which is an ongoing interest for me. Kitsch is very closely related to nostalgia—a lot of what becomes kitsch is, to quote Milan Kundera, “Illuminated by the aura of nostalgia,” meaning that many things looks better from the present once they have faded into the past, even things that were violent or somehow troubling. That is sort of the other side of the coin of images losing value over time, some of them gain it too, and it’s all wrapped up in nostalgia.

I also think that there is a certain nostalgia involved in collecting and representing materials—a need to create an external version of oneself, to keep an archive, there is something existential about this. As if stuff and physical pictures could somehow create a more permanent self (does this make sense? I’m sort of thinking of the way that a collection of stuff or an archive can outlive their owner).

LR Do you look at the history of assemblage?

SC My work involves a purposeful but also chaotic sort of assemblage. Often I will begin with found objects that that fit into a category I have chosen or that somehow resonate with the tradition of still life then build from there. So for example, in these Contemporary Floral Arrangements images, I start with floral still lives that I find in the New York Public Library, blow them up and piece them back together, and then rebuild them out of a mix of contemporary objects and discarded materials that I find. I am making a new still life out of an old one and using this faded, idealized “natural” image as a framework for representing a lot of discarded materials that wouldn’t traditionally find a place in a highly produced still life photograph.

Sara Cwynar 2

Contemporary Floral Arrangements 4 (Two Monochromatic Color Schemes), 2014. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

Certainly, a big part of my work involves combining found objects and images to work through the associative potential of these things and to see what connections, both formal and conceptual, will arise when different elements are placed together in a photograph. We all know what made assemblage historically powerful was often the unexpected juxtapositions of things, often mundane, familiar things. And that is an idea I’m really invested in: the way that things are transformed when put together in a photograph and the combinations that arise when you pick a category (say a detail of an object or a source photograph to work from) and then allow for accident to happen.

AM There is an interplay of high and low culture in your work, which is certainly present in your ability to seamlessly mix critical theory and kitsch in your book, Kitsch Encyclopedia. What is the origin of this exchange?

SC Something that Kitsch Encyclopedia does is equalize all different types of imagery, so a picture of the bomb or a highly produced fashion image are presented on the same plane as a gross food photograph or someone’s bad snapshot. This is kind of how the Internet and the proliferation of images in our culture makes us experience pictures now. It seemed useful to me to try to parse this using theory about how images work. For example, I use a lot of Baudrillard—his idea of “hyperreality,” how the image of something has become more real to us than its actual real life counterpart—in the book. He was obviously writing before the internet became what it is now but I think these are important ideas to revisit and also are the foundation for a lot of present discussions about how image culture changes our relationship to the world. Kundera and Barthes discuss very similar things—the way that images help to skew reality, to build a new world on top of the old one—so it made sense for me to bring these three texts together to formulate this definition of kitsch for my own use, to illustrate a lot of the images I had already been collecting. (I hope that answer doesn’t deviate too much from the question!)

LR How does the language of archiving inform your process?

SC I am really interested in the possibilities for using a personal archive, my own accumulation of images and objects, as a means of intervening into the shared or common archive of images that shapes the way we see the world, grabbing a small piece of the world and reconstituting it under my own terms. By shared archive, I am thinking partly about Foucault’s idea of the word, which was that the archive governs everything that is allowed to be said and what cannot be said in a society at a given time, the statements that are allowed to be true, and those which can’t be acknowledged. And also about a more visual idea of the shared archive, the set of images that we are all familiar with, that make up our view of ourselves and our history (which is based often on photographic tropes).

I am also interested—especially in the floral studies photos or the gum stands—in this sort of common, forgotten archive of a smaller register that is composed of stuff that everybody saves and leaves behind. I’m thinking of a junk drawer as archive here. 

AM Has your sense of an archive taken on new meanings now that you have continually revisited the concept over time?

SC I don’t think so although the physical archive grows and grows and grows. Maybe there is more anxiety about the archive as it gets physically bigger!

Sara Cwynar 3

Display Stand, No. 66, 2014. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.

AM How has your previous work as a graphic designer influenced your practice? Is the decision to include text and lettering in your work at all related to this?

SC My background in graphic design opened up the possibility of making an encyclopedia in the first place. For me, the encyclopedia is a sort of object-as-kitsch, this idealist modernist object that supposedly contains all knowledge in one set of volumes from A to Z. This neat categorizing of the world through images and snippets of text is very much kitsch in my use of the term and simply the form that makes the most sense for this project. My background as graphic designer allowed me to execute it myself and to fully embrace the possibilities of using design in art, which is something I’m really invested in. I think I’m drawn to text for these reasons too, composition and typography in a graphic design sensibility are things I find really satisfying to incorporate into making work.

LR Which came first: your interest in photography or your interest in installation and mixed media?

SC My interest in photography probably came first, and for a time I was more of a straight photographer, an approach I have pretty much completely abandoned. To me it is more interesting to take images that already exist (some of which I have taken myself but most of which I find) and re-present them, re-make them, extract them from the cycle of images, and intervene with them in my own terms through installation (and studio photography). These installations often end up flattened again into single images though, so it all sort of happens in a cycle and I often begin with photography, make something else out of it, and come back to photography at the end. But I now consider photography more of a tool in my work than a medium that I am totally devoted to.

See more of Sara Cwynar’s work here.

Ashley McNelis is a writer, curator and second year master’s student at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

Legacy Russell is a Contributing Editor for BOMB Daily. She is a writer, artist, and curator. Follow her on Twitter: @LegacyRussell.

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