Winner of the Baloise Art Prize 2016.
In 1964, the literary and cultural critic Roland Barthes published “The Rhetoric of the Image,” a groundbreaking essay that examined in detail a typical advertising studio still life photograph (for Panzani, the French-made range of “Italian” food products). Each object in the photograph—fresh vegetables and tinned food spilling out of a net shopping bag—along with the lighting and composition, combined to produce an overall meaning aimed at making factory food appear rustic and traditional. Culture was being presented as nature, convention presented as normality. The same year, Jean Luc-Godard made the film “Une Femme Mariée”, in which a young woman reflects on the way “femininity” is constructed and commercialized in the mass media. Pop art was in full swing, and the Situationists were twisting the images and slogans of commercial culture until they revealed their contradictions. Soon, feminist artists and filmmakers such as Babette Mangolte, Chantal Akerman, and Agnés Varda began to make work that took mainstream culture as a set of signs that could be subverted, recombined, and turned upside down.
That mode of semiotic bricolage went on to inform much of the art that was labeled “postmodern,” in which advertising, cinema, television, and art history were ice-boxes to be raided and remade. Canadian by birth and living in New York, Sara Cwynar makes work that can be understood in relation to this legacy of rhetorical play. She is interested in the ways commodities, cosmetics, color, advertising, industrial design, and synthetics shape the understanding of gender, gesture, sexuality, and desire. Where does the self come from? Where do commodities end and the self begin?
Tracy is a friend of Cwynar. They had known each other a decade when these pictures were made. Tracy had a background in design and art direction, so she understood constructed photography, the way elements can be choreographed as a set of proposals and counterproposals. She dressed herself for the shoots, did her own makeup, and struck her own poses, although the whole notion of things being “one’s own” is really the subject here. The props, arrangement, and lighting are Cwynar’s choices, although “choice” is what is being called into question.
The whole ensemble of these images is playful but serious. The tone of precise awkwardness and calculated gaucheness has its own allure. There are nods to the 1980s. It is the decade in which Cwynar was born, but also the decade in which Barthes’ theories were being stripped of their critical intent and turned into manuals for advertisers; the decade when irony began to look like hypocrisy with a sense of style, and progress appeared to be running out of steam. In Cwynar’s images it is not just the signs of consumer culture that are reworked; she reworks the last 50 years of that reworking.