Artist Sara Cwynar’s work is both impressively complex and approachable. Her new show at the Herzfeld Center for Photography and Media Arts, in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s lower level, is her first solo exhibition, and it feels like exactly the sort of thing the center was created for. Cwynar is a former graphic designer at the New York Times Magazine who realized she was more interested in critiquing advertising, kitsch and consumer excitement than in creating it.
One of her earliest projects was to take old photographs of flower displays and overlay them with small, colorful and typically mundane objects, recreating the image and changing the function of color within the object, pushing it to the front. A green spool becomes more green than a spool. The Contemporary Floral Arrangements have a strange three-dimensional quality, as if there has been a rupture in reality.
The MAM show has two of her short films, Rose Gold and Soft Film, which serve as a good introduction to her way of seeing and thinking. It takes some adjustment – Cwynar uses many forgotten or worthless objects, a junk drawer palette, and everyone has filters behind their eyes to keep down the complexity. The movies are funny, brainy, discursive and conversational, and gently help to lower the drawbridge: A felt-covered jewelry box becomes something more, but what is its true reality? In Rose Gold, inspired by the rose gold iPhone, Cwynar puzzles over the meaning of color and why, for example, it’s so important (red/blue) to politics.
Returning to the still images in the gallery after the appropriate warm-up, they’re almost overwhelming and lead the mind down tunnels of significance. The stills invite an impolite, nose-against-glass kind of examination not fully suited to an art museum. One image is an attempt to create something like a film with many text blocks and small pictures, giving the viewer the choice of where to proceed next, hypertext-style. For one work, she overlaid small color photos of women on a 1950s-ish black-and-white photo of old, powerful-looking men, and for another, female hands on suits of metal armor. But no matter how well you understand the concept behind a piece, there’s always something surprising and beautiful.
Cwynar is also a writer and theorist, and she created The Kitsch Encylopedia as an undergraduate, publishing it later using a “kitschstarter” campaign. The short films were an attempt to get more of the theory behind pieces into the pieces themselves, and she means more by “kitsch” than retro or tacky things. She has cited a broader definition of imagined collective viewing. In other words, kitsch is when you experience an image or object not as simply yourself but as part of a larger group – seeing an old car not as a piece of metal but as a great example of American motor engineering, something from a better time.
The show runs through Aug. 4, and last week writer Sheila Heti was in town to interview Cwynar on the occasion of the opening. She described her process of going through many, many eBay listings to find the items she needs, and while she occasionally discovers them on the street, her needs have become too specific and picky. She also drew parallels between the relentless approach needed to excel as a young figure skater (as she was formerly) and to create art. She also said she doesn’t like how her pictures appear on the internet in a shrunken state, so …