Sara Cwynar is just young enough to speak the mother-tongue of post-photography. Certainly her work assumes the dimensionality of an exploded medium and exercises a liberation of the lens. However, in this instance, it’s a punch-drunk yet frame-conscious undoing that, like most released things, loops back to its tether once excused from the line.
At only 31, Cwynar is well lit. She’s been collected by the Guggenheim, reviewed in the New Yorker, featured on the cover of Frieze. It helps that her practice can be read both aesthetically and esoterically. Her color-organized collections of discordant detritus, or her ludic presentations of exotic birds (or friends) among constructed backdrops, walk a balance between playful figuration and photographic self-reflexivity. Her success seems to root in her ability to know both sides.
In this way, the pith of Cwynar’s work is deceptively conservative: like how the many-legged wonder of our subjectivity is still reliant on narrative, or like how a post-medium or post-studio practice still relies on analogue for its distinction. Cwynar performs a deft double-speak, daring us to call her out on something like our own neurosis, or observe her coolness amidst a familiar multiplicity. But between these bars, there lies a third option: the acknowledgment that when we want something vulnerable, we scatter. That the true thing lies somewhere beneath our invented distractions and the clean line we draw around the day before we sleep. She seems to say, all this media doesn’t cover our rising mount.
In a recent show that showcases the culmination of her thesis work from Yale (exhibited at her founding commercial gallery, Toronto’s Cooper Cole), Cwynar demonstrates that she’s not only mastered the thing she’s known for, but is already reaching for the next.
She departs from her signature still-lifes – and the photo-reflexivity they typically perform – to pursue a triptych of photo-collages that relays a single, formal exchange (a South-Korean business deal as pictured in found photographs dating from the 1970s) that’s essentialized through both truncation and repetition. In a series of cryptic, isolated gestures (hand shakes, turned necks, and glances), a deal goes down whose proportions are made both humane and suspicious. Disturbing the potential neutrality of these transactions, Cwynar emphasizes the interstitial or unnamable portions of her source material: for instance, the pink creases of shaking hands, or pointing fingers. From a distance, these appear like a voluble wash of rashing reds; up close, like abject servings. Importantly, the photo collage is positioned on a black floor, with yellow threads and pink stickers gridding the tableaux – and also picturing the wheel of her tripod – such that we’re reminded: this is the director’s cut (a favored authorial motif of the artist’s that risks over-use).
Within a spare and idiosyncratically-paced exhibition, Cwynar is nearly forceful in presenting her new and narrowed focus, an essentialized leitmotif rooted in gesture. She zeroes in on the ambiguity and essential vulnerability of physical expression – its intention, and, often, its distance from reception. This is an important stripping-away for an artist whose profile has only recently been staked in the cataloging of our manifold attachments – our crowded detritus that doesn’t do justice to identity or expression, but accounts for our volume and our wake. Here, instead, with attention to scale and a newfound restraint, Cwynar features gesture as a narrative prompt for a meaning that won’t come. We are too removed by time, context, the photographic lens, our subjectivity, our mortal impasses. Cwynar stops short of gesturing beyond her own lens to remind us that we, too, are limited by ours.
So while a pair of black hands gesticulates on a grand scale (one finger flicking out, a stardust of skin flakes falling away, while deceptively printed like a Vancouver-School triptych), we read it as a tonal inflection, rather than content – as anxiety-driving, or a formal invitation to alertness, like when someone says “look!” but you don’t know where to turn.
There are a few small portraits positioned throughout this limited body of work that serve an important function, and notably – also literally – foot the exhibition’s larger gestures. They feature Cwynar’s then-boyfriend shrouded by the felt used for green-screens, or to complement (or deflect) color in a photographer’s shoot. He’s tarped, or the lens is tented, so that you only see him in the margins of the frame, looking blank or maybe slightly assailed, and stringently lit. In one, he’s not only covered, but the print is whited out, and over top it reads “you never look at me from the place I see you.” A text is scribbled over this, too, reading: “enamored with your black-blue hair.”
It’s important to remember, however obvious or dated the reference seems now, that poststructuralism informs Cwynar’s latest exercise, and that she’s gesturing to an essential lack – not in the subject, but the frame – when she throws a blanket on her subject. Viewing her photo-collages, for instance, I’m reminded of David Hockney’s photo-joiners from the 1980s (what he regarded as photography’s answer to Cubism: multiple Polaroids stitched together to portray an active subject). He was focused on the demotion of single-point perspective (even before photography had fully been recognized as contemporary art), and encouraged what Derrida calls “différance.” Hockney would claim “the central problem of depiction” to be “that it is not an attempt to recreate something, but an account of seeing it” – and Derrida, for his part, championed the “garment” for its reminder of the lack that resides beneath. So Cwynar might be exorcising her MFA ghosts, here, but the work is no weaker for these citations. We’re still in need of directed meaning, and the question of where to look is not faded but, if anything, exasperated. As Cwynar seems intent on exposing the constraints of her medium (and perhaps preparing to make a move, as her recent award-winning Art Basel film, Soft Film, might suggest), she’s tipping her hat, and ambiguously moving her hand. She’s alerting us to something – and we should prepare ourselves to turn.