Six Portraits by the Artist Featuring Tracy Ma and Miu Miu’s FW19 Collection on Ssense
In a gorgeously musing and meandering essay published last year, titled
“Should Artists Shop or Stop Shopping?” the writer Sheila Heti considers the work of artist Sara Cwynar, whose photography and films examine themes surrounding—among other things—beauty, advertising, the recent past, visual bias, desuetude. Heti holds, while accounting for and scrutinizing her own consumer habits, that shopping and writing are mutually related. Both require the act of selection. Both are expressions of the self. Both are creative, though shopping liquidates Heti’s creative energy, leaving her anxious, excitable yet prone to dread. Both play into desire as a state which is achieved so long as it isn’t exactly served. Both involve deciding on the best thing: “Shopping is choosing the best thing. Writing is choosing the best thing (the thing to write about, and the best way of writing it).”
Heti inquires: does Cwynar experience shopping as a writer might experience writing, or does she experience shopping as a writer might experience shopping? Or is there, Heti wonders, some other third thing? “What would it feel like to be like Sara Cwynar; to every day buy a postcard of the Twin Towers on eBay?” She continues: “Sara Cwynar looks for what there is to buy, but the meanings of the objects for sale—their meanings are entirely hers.”
Value comes from how Cwynar sees and systemizes, and sticks tape on the corners of large scale print-outs. Bouquets of objects in full bloom. Clocks and ring boxes. Dish gloves, dice. A rose carefully propped against a green background. A hand carefully adjusting a phone case or placing a sea shell beside a pink razor, knitting needles, and other shapes. A red boot, Nefertiti’s bust, promotional pencils, plastic grapes, paperclips, expired pills. Altar-like color-stories erected with faded Melamine and homewares, or even, how a simple bar of soap bargains with and implicates the worth of a particular shade of blue—all of these choices create the phenomenon of attraction. They petition from the viewer a little game of longing. Of wanting just one taste. “Delicious” is how Heti describes Cwynar’s films.
It’s worth noting the parallels between this feeling and what we, as consumers, derive from shopping online. How we scroll past a purple sweater and now, suddenly, we are stricken by the need to own that purple sweater. How we fill our cart with the purple sweater and the pink Nikes, and the pair of freshwater pearl earrings, and then we get carried away and add the handsome loafers and deliberate on the bag that’s shaped like a ball. And yet, we rarely proceed to checkout.
This e-comm universe of mass reluctance similarly absorbs Cwynar. In a triptych titled, 141 Pictures of Sophie, 1, 2, and 3(2019), Cwynar photographs a model named Sophie, (who regularly models for SSENSE), in various configurations, mimicking the e-comm studio’s “views.” Different angles, same girl. Cwynar then collages her photograph of Sophie with stratified images of Sophie taken from the SSENSE site. The juxtaposition is surreal and somehow sincere in its unaffected redundancy. The staid quality of the e-commerce model, styled in luxury products, becomes all at once flattened and dynamic.
“The photographs force us to confront ostensibly ordinary images, highlighting the disjuncture between Sophie depicted in the studio and her sleeker digital twin,” notes a review in The Nation of Cwynar’s first East Coast solo exhibit currently showing at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. “A homage to the Photoshop proletariat, the piece hints at the labor that goes into making SSENSE Sophie, who has far dewier skin and much brighter crimson hair than the real, nondigitized Sophie.”
Comparison is, after all, essential to Cwynar’s project—a sort of holy mess is at play. Collapse as a tool for linking what is considered obsolete (over time) with what disappears (in a flash): trend cycles, chromatic design, beauty standards, optimism. Appraisal, accrual, and how value can be reframed; these are the topics that focus Cwynar’s work. Be it a compilation-wallpaper titled 72 Pictures of Modern Paintings, where fragmented Picasso paintings (and Modigliani, Pollock, and Lichtenstein) become decorative art. Or her current work for the MoMA, wherein Cwynar was invited by the museum as it prepares for its opening in October, to create a series of videos. She describes her project as loosely inspired by John Berger’s seminal 1970s video series Ways of Seeing, though updated to feature social media, contemporary feminism, the #MeToo movement, and technology.
Here, in an exclusive editorial and interview for SSENSE, Cwynar photographs Miu Miu’s FW19 collection with her friend and muse, Tracy Ma. We talk to Cwynar about shopping habits, self-portraiture, and applying logic to beauty.
Growing up, what did your house look like?
I was born in Vancouver but I only lived there until I was 5. Then we moved to Ottawa. In Vancouver, we lived in this big, classic suburban house. I remember thick rugs. Like gross carpeting from the 80s. I lived in a room with a sloping ceiling that felt claustrophobic and I shared a hallway with my twin sister. It was a strange house—the living room was triangular-shaped. I remember a lot of dark wood—it was kind of scary. I would have these crazy dreams where I’d see an alligator standing in the corner of rooms. The most notable thing about our Ottawa house was that I painted my bedroom purple and mint green.
Have you always been drawn to colors, contrasting colors, colors as they collide with memory?
I had an orange puffy coat when I was 10 that I always wore. I was also a figure skater, so I had a lot of crazy-colorful costumes and make-up.
Did you make your own costumes?
My mom mostly did. She’s really amazing at sewing and would make her own clothes in the 70s. Making figure skating costumes is really difficult—it requires a lot of minute handwork, like sewing individual rhinestones.
What was your favorite skating routine?
I had a pretty sweet Phantom of the Opera one. I wore a black and white costume which I thought was very sophisticated at the time. I started with my hand over my face, and then I revealed my face—that was the first move in the program.
There’s an element of your art that could easily be characterized as nostalgic, especially because of all the cultural iconography in your work. I’m curious about the images from your childhood, be it food labels in your kitchen pantry or the opening credits to your favorite TV show.
It’s funny, because in a lot of my work, I’m thinking about a history I wasn’t really present for, or one that just preceded me, or was happening when I was too young to be really cognizant of it. There’s something about looking back at what you weren’t a part of, that makes you feel like you can see it more clearly. I really remember the definitive media moments, like Tonya Harding or Saved by the Bell getting interrupted for O.J. Simpson in the white Bronco. These moments when scandalous celebrity misadventures were so spectacular that everything had to get interrupted.
Reminds me a lot of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For.
Yeah! Yeah! It was also the last era where everything came from one place. Everyone was watching the same TV, at least in a North American context. Everyone had the same references. Now, things have exploded—it’s no longer possible.
Because I was just revisiting Sheila Heti’s piece about your work, I was hoping we might talk about your shopping habits. What was your last eBay purchase?
It was a Benetton, big blue t-shirt from the 80s. I really like Benetton because they teamed up with lots of companies in that era: the Olympics, and Euro-Disney merch, and they made weird golf clothing. I find it charming.
Did you buy it for yourself? Or for a piece of your work?
For myself. For my work, I’ve been buying these pictures of women wrestling. But someone started outbidding me! I think the buyer has someone else bidding against me, so that the prices go up hundreds of dollars for these snapshots of women in a wrestling league in the 80s. I really love them, and I really need them for my art, but it’s getting to the point where they’re too expensive! The last one I got has really amazing colors, but now I’ve cut myself off.
What was the last souvenir you bought when travelling?
I went to this town in Puglia called Grottaglie. It’s kind of like the ceramics capital of Southern Italy. And I bought this ceramic doll with a mustache called “The Bearded Bride of Grottaglie.” The fable associated with it is kind of gruesome but triumphant.
What was the last thing you bought at the grocery store?
A 12-pack of Bud Lite.
Last bag of chips that you bought?
Sour cream and onion Lay’s. That’s my favorite.
What was the last thing you bought at the pharmacy?
Pantene Pro-V conditioner.
And what about something from the pharmacy that was meant for your art?
I bought some gold thumbtacks the other day.
The last book that you bought?
Jia Tolentino’s book. I read the whole thing in one day because I loved it so much.
What was the last thing you stole?
A yellow-and-white plastic shopping bag that says “Cintra Centre” on it in a kind of circular ‘70s lettering. It’s now stuck on my fridge. I also stole a lot of pens from the Banff Centre.
What other photos or objects are you collecting for your work?
I’ve actually been looking a lot at SSENSE’s styling and seeing how the clothes are photographed in a very structured way. I really like looking for variations. I’m also looking through all of MoMA’s archives—what has been shown over and over again and what hasn’t been shown. And then how MoMA tells us who we think we are or what our history is, in ways that are heavily biased but also totally arbitrary. Why was some art shown and some other art never shown? There are many reasons, but often it’s because the artist was a woman—you know, the very white male history of art. It’s been a real education for me. I have a graphic design degree, I don’t have an art history degree.
What materials or objects are you working with these days?
I’m trying to use fewer things as a challenge to myself.
How’s that going?
It’s not going so well. I’m trying to not rely on how cool or satisfying or surprising objects from a recent past can look, and figure out a way to work with contemporary materials. It’s hard. For example, I just filmed in a pantyhose factory in Italy. I’ve been collecting and photographing a lot of pantyhose, which are such amazing-looking objects. They are infinitely satisfying to photograph. I’m also still photographing roses.
Do the still life components of your work feel like a form of self-portraiture?
Totally. It’s a way of taking everything I want and putting it one place. There’s also a lot of retouching and manipulation, and using different cameras to make things look how I wished they looked—there’s definitely something biographical and personal happening there.
In what ways is your art a documentation of trends?
I’m so obsessed with recent histories because they show how everything that we think is new is actually just things repeating. Novelty isn’t really novelty at all, it’s just something old that we’re excited to accept. The first person who does something is never the person who gets somewhere with it. That’s kind of how fashion works, too. It’s comforting and infinitely satisfying to watch things come back again and again. But there are some things I can never figure out. One of them is: why do I like old things? Trying to answer that question has been really motivating and generative. Or why some things return, and look good again. I’m always trying to figure that out by re-showing them or combining them, staring at them, photographing them. It’s really important for the way that we experience the world now, because we’re inundated with trends and new things to look at, to choose from, to decide about. It really has a psychological effect. Nobody can really explain, in a good way, why we like what we do.
But fully knowing why we like what we like…would kind of kill why we like it.
Totally. It’s the same thing as, if you actually get the thing, it’s ruined.
Your fascination with e-comm photography. Let’s talk about that.
I find it so delightful to look at SSENSE when a bunch of new stuff has just rolled out. I like looking at the way actual human women are used as mannequins on e-comm. It makes you realize how much you project onto people when you know nothing about them. It’s a great illustration for how people use clothes to communicate, or as armor, or as identity. Looking at the same person in dramatically different outfits over and over again, there’s an element of the uncanny.
Speaking of models, Tracy Ma has now modeled for you numerous times, including this Miu Miu editorial. Would you call her your muse?
I find that word really funny but it’s accurate. It’s rare to find a true muse and that’s what Tracy is—I think about how things will look on her, and everything she does is exactly what I want.
We both come from Canada, we’re both graphic designers, we both worked for magazines when we were pretty young, we both have an intimate knowledge of how pictures get made and how women get pictured, and how people see us as women in the world. She has this irony to the way she poses but also a vulnerability that is exactly how I feel about getting looked at and having my picture taken. She really understands what it means to have her picture in the world.
In terms of trends, there’s a whole industry now for color forecasting. Do you believe in it? Do you think we’re overthinking it?
The second one. I kind of think it’s bullshit. Like many things it feels like a logic being applied later. I think it’s part of how color is being used to sell you something you already have, but in another version.
It’s true. Everything I have in black, I want it in purple.
You need everything in a more regal color!
Is there a color that when you wear it, people say it really suits you?
Cerulean blue. I have a bunch of really bright blue suits that I wear all the time.
In your photography, is there any color you’re completely averse to?
Well…actually…I really don’t like purple.
If I see someone wearing purple, that’s totally different than trying to photograph purple.
Why is purple tough to photograph?
I don’t think it reproduces well. It absorbs a lot of light and it would always be more satisfying if it was blue. That’s totally subjective of course! But I’m looking at a lot of prints I have on my walls right now and there’s not a single bit of purple in any of them.
Do you think there’s an element of misunderstanding or dismissal when your photographs are described as beautiful?
If you’re an artist, you have to be okay with the fact that not everyone is going to be able to know how much thought and energy, and research has been poured into [your work]. It can be a weird process of letting go of a certain amount of pride. When you put something out in the world, people might read it in a much simpler way than you intended. Often, people receive the work in much more complex ways than I intended. I definitely know that people write off my work because it’s so aesthetically pleasing, but I think that’s part of the content. It’s always been important for me to make things that are accessible, that have values other than didactic art theory values, and can be pleasurable on other terms. I’m still committed to making things as aesthetically pleasing as possible for that reason. That’s why I started making videos because I think it’s a medium that can speak to wider audiences. Using beauty has a real function—I think things have a logic when they’re beautiful. They sort of justify themselves.
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