July 11, 2019

Sara Cwynar’s solo exhibition at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art is featured on Zukus.

Sara Cwynar’s video Cover Girl (2018), the artist’s meditation on femininity and the history of cosmetics, includes scenes shot in the depths of an unnamed makeup factory. In one scene, the camera pans over sterile jars filled with flesh-tone liquids to be eventually sold as foundation. In another, thin sheets of oily rose-colored wax—pink lipstick in progress—cascade down a slide looking like slices of finely shaved deli meat, delectable and disgusting.

There is something jarring about seeing the cold realities of the beauty industry—a sector that is growing rapidly among millennials, shilling self-care, individuality, and most important, the capacity to be Instagram ready. And after one views Cover Girl in Cwynar’s “Gilded Age” at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut—the artist’s first East Coast solo museum show—it’s hard to resist seeking out more footage from inside cosmetics factories. My favorite, a YouTube video by L’Oréal on its lipstick-making process, stands out for embracing the contradiction between the product’s associations and its mode of manufacturing, stressing that “as glamorous as it is, lipstick is still a high-technology product.” As the video elaborates, lip color is mixed according to tested, standardized procedures. To achieve each shade, multiple pigments are needed, and each tube contains about 20 ingredients.

Images, especially those of women, are just as manufactured—comprising ingredients that cohere into one appealing or comprehensible vision. And many of Cwynar’s videos and photographs are designed, like Cover Girl, to offer something like a behind-the-scenes look into the making of feminine ideals. Her work forces viewers to question why certain tropes of femininity appear beautiful or at least normalized. Why does a synthetically produced red lip, for example, read as sultry rather than machinic? And when and why do we embrace artifice in women? How much makeup is too much? At what point does self-enhancement slip from tasteful to garish?

Cwynar’s work is also interested more broadly in identifying the palettes, cinematographic moods, and media formats we are subconsciously drawn to. For example, her best-known film, Rose Gold (2017)—shown in a 2017 exhibition at her New York gallery, Foxy Production—highlights our attraction to soft colors and faded analog film. (Soft Film is the title of a 2016 video showing the artist arranging her vintage eBay purchases by look, date, and function.) Shot on 16 millimeter, Rose Gold centers on color trends and takes its name from the popular, since-discontinued iPhone color option. Through a series of montages and voiceovers, Cwynar reveals how our reception of different hues changes over time by comparing our appreciation of the titular iridescent pink to our revulsion for older, harsher metallics like harvest gold, a mustardy shade that was a staple of 1970s fridges and shag carpets.

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