Walk into any thrift store and you’ll be bombarded by kitsch: fake flower bouquets, Mickey Mouse stuffed animals, coffee cups with goofy sayings like “I fish, therefore I am.”
In other words, “I kitsch, therefore I am.”
Artist Sara Cwynar is more fascinated by kitsch than the average thrift store shopper, using it to ask questions about how color and design drive our individual consumerism. Her first solo museum exhibition, “Image Model Muse” — three short films and 11 photographs that opened last weekend at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) — dives into a category of objects and imagery that have come to embody a swath of American pop culture.
Cwynar regards kitsch “as idealized imagery that we look at in order to ignore everything that is aesthetically unappealing about life,” she said during an interview at Mia. “So it’s like almost an existential thing, because it is looking at something that is better than what’s right in front of you. It gets nostalgic really easily.”
Kitsch pops up all over Cwynar’s work, but the heart of her conceptual practice is an exploration of physical reality and the ways in which it can be reproduced.
This theme is apparent in three photos of 1970s-style golden presidential busts-turned-cologne bottles, in which she blows up handheld objects to the size of actual human torsos. The gold busts stand valiantly against black surfaces, but the artist has removed the heads and put screw-on caps in their place. This series brings to mind the sort of empty symbol that this relic of masculinity has come to embody.
In her “Tracy” series, Cwynar dives into the feminine, photographing a friend who mimics classic 1950s studio portraits — posing against a blown-up color grid in one photo, and a green background juxtaposed with historical snapshots of women in another.
“I picked Tracy because she poses kind of ironically,” Cwynar said. “She is an art director and designer, so she has kind of an idea of how women have been represented when she is posing.”
Tracy is also someone she’s been photographing for 10 years. Using a model off of Craigslist wouldn’t offer that sort of intimacy between subject and object that these photos achieve. In these works, there’s a clear distinction between photos that once read as “real” and those, like the selfie, that immediately reveal their constructed nature.
Her three films delve further into how advertising uses color and design to sell products and create desire. In her 2017 film “Rose Gold,” she uses that particular model of iPhone to think about the false ideal that consumers are sold: that if they buy enough and work enough, this “good life fantasy” can be theirs. In actuality, Cwynar seems to be saying, the fantasy offered by consumerism holds people back.
At the same time, Cwynar admits she did really want the Rose Gold iPhone, and she thinks the phone itself will eventually become kitsch — an idealized version of your life in the palm of your hand. Which makes it seem like perhaps we live in a kitsch world.
Is anything not kitsch, then?
“There would be a distinction between actual life, being in a body, the kind of gross reality of being a human — that is not kitsch, for sure,” said Cwynar. “You could maybe say: What hasn’t been filtered through a media of some sort isn’t kitsch.”
Cwynar’s interest in the ways that reality is mediated were solidified for her during the three years that she worked as a designer at the New York Times. It sounds like a dream job, but for Cwynar it was more of an intense day job. At certain points, she found herself waking up at 5 a.m. to make art. Eventually she became overwhelmed and felt she wasn’t answering her true calling, which was to be an artist.
She quit the Times and went to Yale for her MFA in photography (though she does do occasional freelance projects for the Times Magazine). But her experience in mass media stuck with her, particularly the ways that she had to think about how millions of people would consume the product she designed.
Cwynar’s connection to Minneapolis is somewhat random. Before this solo exhibition, she had never been here. She was brought in by the Art Institute’s curator of contemporary art, Gabriel Ritter, who encountered her work at a 2014 solo show at Foxy Production Gallery in New York. At the time, Ritter was at the Dallas Museum of Art. He was the first museum curator to purchase her work.
After Minneapolis, the show will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum — another institution in the Midwest, a region often viewed as kitschy by people on the coasts, rife with butter sculptures, trucker hats, corn, farming, cheese and many lakes for fishing. Was this perception of the Midwest something that Cwynar thought about before coming to install the show?
“I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s a good connection,” she admitted. “But also, I am Canadian. The Midwest didn’t have this thing for me until I moved to America. It is this sort of maligned middle of the country that occupies a cultural space similar to Canada — everyone is always making fun of Canadians, like they are less sophisticated or something.”