Sara Cwynar’s Explorations in the Kitschy Sublime

Sara Cwynar’s Explorations in the Kitschy Sublime
Sara Cwynar
Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production, New York.

Cwynar rearranges the disposable, bringing new life to past images and objects that will be around forever. 

This planet’s perpetual expanse of artifacts is an overwhelming conception — almost something that cannot be imagined. Like thinking about numbers beyond one trillion, it’s something that, in everyday speech, makes our brains hurt. 

Simultaneously terrifying and beautiful, this seemingly infinite proliferation of artifacts provokes feelings similar to 19th century Romantic poets’ conceptions of the sublime. Though the sublime was typically associated with the power of nature, English Romantics also began to view it more generally as referring to a “realm of experience beyond the measurable” — something beyond rational thought that arises from awe-inspiring phenomena. 

Today, nature continues to inspire notions of the sublime, but there is a relatively new, ever-expanding arena of phenomena primed to inspire similar emotional sensations.

Technology — with all its forms, delights, and terrors — presents artists of all sorts with a new, ever-evolving muse that is universal to the 21st century human experience. And photography — in all its forms and derivations — is perhaps the most universally visible manifestation of contemporary technological dominance. To think, once again, about something like how many photos are taken on Earth in a single trip around the sun is enough to make most of our heads actually explode. 

But rather than shove this thought into the realm of “things to forget and ignore,” artist Sara Cwynar’s solo exhibition “Flat Death” tackles the concept head-on, actually embracing the literality of “visual explosion.” Exhibited at New York City’s Foxy Production in 2014, “Flat Death” featured 19 color photographs — each an assemblage of manipulated images sourced from darkroom manuals, old encyclopedias, flea markets, and the New York Public Library Picture Collection, as well as discarded, totally random objects. In essence, Cwynar reappropriates these found materials — breathing new life into obsolete ephemera with the help of contemporary tools such as scanning, re-photographing, and digital assemblage. 

Today, “Flat Death” proves just as resonant as it was seven years ago, if not more. Since 2014, a growing collective consciousness around stuff in general has many of us reevaluating our relationships to material objects. Likewise, the internet’s breadth continues to expand beyond our wildest imaginations, causing many of us to wonder what will happen to all of this content, both physical and virtual. Where will it go and what will its connotations and consequences look like years or decades in the future? These thoughts alone are — like others we’ve mentioned before — basically straight brain dynamite.

But just as humans have done for centuries, Cwynar takes this brain dynamite and turns it into visual art. In doing so, at least a figment of the seemingly ineffable sublime is communicated, visualized, or even synthesized. 

Two of the show’s pieces stand out specifically for their synthesis of figurative brain dynamite. In this case, that sublime-like fodder is the endless stream of objects and images that, at least relatively speaking, no longer matter to anyone. Both works situate these seemingly obsolete images and objects in the instantly recognizable form of floral still life, invoking the famed work of 17th century Flemish painters.

One, titled Contemporary Floral Arrangement 4 is especially striking: Look closely and the piece is even more intricate than you’d realize upon first glance — an iPod, remote control, birthday candles, dice, and melted, scarlet wax make up this blooming bouquet. In a single, multifaceted swoop, Cwynar combines an Old World genre, forgotten material objects, and 21st century tools to create something that is anachronistic and confusing, though still poignant and visually pleasing. 

Part of this piece’s visual pleasure lies in its floral mimicry; flowers are universally recognized as items to be displayed and admired. In this case, kaleidoscopic blooms of household miscellaneous laid over an “unimportant" photograph also act as objects to be admired. This in turn suggests there is a strange beauty to be found in the endless stream of photos and objects that most humans interact with on a daily basis. 

Cwynar’s corresponding artist statement centers on her interest in the way images and objects accumulate, endure, and change in value over time. She writes that “[her] works impart an uncanny sense of a lost world of images that [she has] collected and recalibrated to present as evidence that images never die.” She continues: “ … [These images and objects] just float somewhere between the traditional realm of the analog and the Internet, or between complex emotional attachments and kitsch.”

This fine line between sentimentality and excess is something most people encounter regularly; what photos, for instance, are emotionally important for one person, and how is it that the rest of the photos on this planet hardly matter to the same individual at all?

However this shakes down, Cwynar’s work underscores the lasting nature of photos or objects sentimental and not; photos and objects that were once sentimental for someone — and that endure indefinitely — are very likely to lose their luster with time, despite continued physical existence. In fathoming the endless stream of past and present human lives, this similarly endless stream of “unimportant” artifacts takes on new dimension. At one point, a photo or object that doesn’t matter to one person today may have been a very important item for someone in the past, which is enough reason to reevaluate the nuances of its supposed unimportance. Contemporary Floral Arrangement 4 puts the potential for this sort of nuance front and center. 

In many ways, Cwynar’s work serves as a microcosm for the great wide world of images and things that feels overwhelming to visualize on our own. More specifically, Contemporary Floral Arrangement 4 exists as an example of how to dissect and visualize the images and items that have come before our time, as well as those that will inevitably come after. Perhaps it helps, in some odd way, to see this influx of items and adjacent emotions as existing in an infinite number of bouquets, in fields of flowers — all in some way pleasing representations of the diverse wonders and complexities of the human condition. 

Or perhaps, Cwynar’s work is a reminder to pay more attention to what we’ve deemed as disposable or inconsequential — especially because we now understand that most of it will be around forever. 

Artist Credits:

Sara Cwynar, Contemporary Floral Arrangement 4 (Two Monochromatic Color Schemes), 2014, chromogenic print on matte paper mounted to Dibond, 60 x 44 in. (152.4 x 111.76 cm). 
Courtesy the artist and Foxy Production, New York.

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