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How Sara Cwynar Uses Wallpaper to Talk About Beauty

by Kathy Hereford, August 15, 2019

Sara Cwynar doesn’t make decoration, but she deftly nods to interior design in her first East Coast solo exhibition, now open at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The Vancouver-born artist—a trained photographer and former designer for the New York Times Magazine—explores trends, commercialism, and the amorphous and ever-changing ideals of beauty. Titled “Sara Cwynar: Gilded Age,” the varied presentation features photographs, film, and a site-specific wallpaper making its first appearance Stateside. The show will be open through Sunday, November 10.

Cwynar’s wallpaper toys with the idea of art as decoration. Sheathing a corner gallery wall, the wallpaper entitled 72 Pictures of Modern Paintings immediately captivates. This expansive decorative work, a first for the artist, is a compilation of famous modern paintings that she digitally manipulated to blend into an almost unrecognizable pattern that’s eerily ornamental until one recognizes a face, or perhaps arm, tucked into the dusty pinks and blues. Sure enough, fragments of 72 works by the likes of Lichtenstein, Picasso, Pollock, and more live amid the chaos. “l wanted to take these art objects that have been given a place of great importance in our culture, mash them together, and turn them into this big decoration to see and whether they’re just beautiful, and whether that makes them valueless,” Cwynar explains. “I think there’s still great value in just being beautiful, but the wallpaper kind of foregrounds the aesthetic components of modern art.” This inquiry is a substantial one: When even the most known artworks can so easily become purely ornamental, what inherently sets a meaningful work apart?

Sara Cwynar, Ultra Cosmetics Inc “SQUARE” Compact Powder (Item #31), “STANDARD” Compact Powder (Item #33), 2015, Collection of Josh and Jill Tarnow, installed on 72 Pictures of Modern Paintings (wallpaper), 2016. Courtesy of the artist, Cooper Cole, Toronto and Foxy Production, New York © Sara Cwynar.

Photo: Jason Mandella

Cwynar investigates the thinness and flexibility of this barrier. Surely these pieces possess artistic value, but why? Viewers are challenged to grapple with this intelligently, as Cwynar smartly avoids the cheekiness that might prompt visceral reactions.

In part, she chose wallpaper as her design medium because even in today’s furniture-as-art moment, wall coverings retain their function as backdrops. Additionally, they remain embedded with associations of a bygone era. Photos of heavily chintzed and wallpapered rooms pass across the desks of designers (and AD editors) often, but such rich interiors are neither mass-market nor the look du jour. “I thought a wallpaper really made sense in this context as a classic bourgeois decorative thing,” she explains. Even today, silk wall coverings or hand-painted wallpapers are markers of luxury. Plus, Cwynar adds, “you don’t see many experimental wallpapers.”

Source: Architectural Digest | Live Learn Nona Blog | Lake Nona Real Estate