Sara Cwynar’s solo show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is featured in Architectural Digest.
Sara Cwynar doesn’t make decoration, but she deftly nods to interior design in her first East Coast solo exhibition, now open at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The Vancouver-born artist—a trained photographer and former designer for the New York Times Magazine—explores trends, commercialism, and the amorphous and ever-changing ideals of beauty. Titled “Sara Cwynar: Gilded Age,” the varied presentation features photographs, film, and a site-specific wallpaper making its first appearance Stateside. The show will be open through Sunday, November 10.
Cwynar’s wallpaper toys with the idea of art as decoration. Sheathing a corner gallery wall, the wallpaper entitled 72 Pictures of Modern Paintings immediately captivates. This expansive decorative work, a first for the artist, is a compilation of famous modern paintings that she digitally manipulated to blend into an almost unrecognizable pattern that’s eerily ornamental until one recognizes a face, or perhaps arm, tucked into the dusty pinks and blues. Sure enough, fragments of 72 works by the likes of Lichtenstein, Picasso, Pollock, and more live amid the chaos. “l wanted to take these art objects that have been given a place of great importance in our culture, mash them together, and turn them into this big decoration to see and whether they’re just beautiful, and whether that makes them valueless,” Cwynar explains. “I think there’s still great value in just being beautiful, but the wallpaper kind of foregrounds the aesthetic components of modern art.” This inquiry is a substantial one: When even the most known artworks can so easily become purely ornamental, what inherently sets a meaningful work apart?
Cwynar investigates the thinness and flexibility of this barrier. Surely these pieces possess artistic value, but why? Viewers are challenged to grapple with this intelligently, as Cwynar smartly avoids the cheekiness that might prompt visceral reactions.
In part, she chose wallpaper as her design medium because even in today’s furniture-as-art moment, wall coverings retain their function as backdrops. Additionally, they remain embedded with associations of a bygone era. Photos of heavily chintzed and wallpapered rooms pass across the desks of designers (and AD editors) often, but such rich interiors are neither mass-market nor the look du jour. “I thought a wallpaper really made sense in this context as a classic bourgeois decorative thing,” she explains. Even today, silk wall coverings or hand-painted wallpapers are markers of luxury. Plus, Cwynar adds, “you don’t see many experimental wallpapers.”
To create the pattern, Cwynar began at the bookshelf, scouring encyclopedias. She picked out the most well-known modern paintings, scanned these reproductions into her computer—stains, spots, and all—and then digitally toyed with the scans in Photoshop. “One thing that’s important to the wallpaper is that you can see the printing dots and textures of the reproductions, so it’s not even about the actual artwork anymore,” Cwynar says. After this digital rearranging, patterns emerged. Trends in the shapes, aesthetics, and depictions of women’s bodies rise to the top of Cwynar’s optics (no doubt due to the era’s most celebrated artists being male).
Though she thinks deeply about trends, Cwynar is not prone to following them in her artistic practice. Citing rose gold accessories and sweatpants as examples, Cwynar investigates the cyclical return of trends, and whether participation in them detracts from the meaning of one’s work—or if it’s inevitable. Who can ever be safe from such influence? The artists in 72 Pictures likely didn’t follow trends consciously, yet their practices bred trends within the global modern art movement. Like decorators who scour archives and museums professionally for inspiration, this isn’t due to a lack of individual perspective as much as proximity and resourcefulness; we are never islands.
When asked if dismantling some of the world’s best-known works was sentimental, Cwynar notes that most viewers interact with reproductions of these pieces already. Andy Warhol’s soup cans, for example, are less likely to be encountered in the flesh than on a stranger’s canvas tote. Ditto a Mondrian composition and a color-block mug at the Met’s gift shop. “It’s about how art gets commodified and recycled into things that can be sold [or] literally placed on something to make it seem like it has a value or an aura,” she says.
“That’s something I think about a lot in my work—how things are changed in meaning and in value after they are touched and understood by other people,” Cwynar adds. “And that’s what trends are too.”
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