Sara Cwynar’s video Cover Girl (2018), the artist’s meditation on femininity and the history of cosmetics, includes scenes shot in the depths of an unnamed makeup factory. In one scene, the camera pans over sterile jars filled with flesh-tone liquids to be eventually sold as foundation. In another, thin sheets of oily rose-colored wax—pink lipstick in progress—cascade down a slide looking like slices of finely shaved deli meat, delectable and disgusting.
There is something jarring about seeing the cold realities of the beauty industry—a sector that is growing rapidly among millennials, shilling self-care, individuality, and most important, the capacity to be Instagram ready. And after one views Cover Girl in Cwynar’s “Gilded Age” at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut—the artist’s first East Coast solo museum show—it’s hard to resist seeking out more footage from inside cosmetics factories. My favorite, a YouTube video by L’Oréal on its lipstick-making process, stands out for embracing the contradiction between the product’s associations and its mode of manufacturing, stressing that “as glamorous as it is, lipstick is still a high-technology product.” As the video elaborates, lip color is mixed according to tested, standardized procedures. To achieve each shade, multiple pigments are needed, and each tube contains about 20 ingredients.
Images, especially those of women, are just as manufactured—comprising ingredients that cohere into one appealing or comprehensible vision. And many of Cwynar’s videos and photographs are designed, like Cover Girl, to offer something like a behind-the-scenes look into the making of feminine ideals. Her work forces viewers to question why certain tropes of femininity appear beautiful or at least normalized. Why does a synthetically produced red lip, for example, read as sultry rather than machinic? And when and why do we embrace artifice in women? How much makeup is too much? At what point does self-enhancement slip from tasteful to garish?
Cwynar’s work is also interested more broadly in identifying the palettes, cinematographic moods, and media formats we are subconsciously drawn to. For example, her best-known film, Rose Gold (2017)—shown in a 2017 exhibition at her New York gallery, Foxy Production—highlights our attraction to soft colors and faded analog film. (Soft Film is the title of a 2016 video showing the artist arranging her vintage eBay purchases by look, date, and function.) Shot on 16 millimeter, Rose Gold centers on color trends and takes its name from the popular, since-discontinued iPhone color option. Through a series of montages and voiceovers, Cwynar reveals how our reception of different hues changes over time by comparing our appreciation of the titular iridescent pink to our revulsion for older, harsher metallics like harvest gold, a mustardy shade that was a staple of 1970s fridges and shag carpets.
Cover Girl picks up on the themes of Rose Gold, demystifying beauty as something in flux—subject to the rules of advertising and manufacturing rather than instinct or nature—and continues Cwynar’s exploration of 16 millimeter’s subduing effects. As she observed at the opening of “Gilded Age,” many of the hottest brands, like Glossier, a naturalish makeup line, and Acne Studios, the Swedish fashion house, trade in dusty colors. A certain form of nostalgia is trending, hungry for the sun-washed tints and blurry imprecision of older media, and Cwynar capitalizes on this fact in her filmmaking. Despite Cover Girl’s unsavory factory scenes, its retro format tinges it with an overall loveliness. Wrapped in the warm embrace of analog, even its sequences of sterile machinery acquire an undeniable gauzy charm, appearing slower and less sharply defined than if they were captured digitally.
Cwynar was born in 1985 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and studied and worked in graphic design—she is a former New York Times Magazine staffer—before turning to the fine arts and pursuing an MFA in photography at Yale. Her background in the world of commercial and editorial design has made her particularly well suited to engage questions about how we package and create beauty trends and given her the skills to understand how professionally made images of women and their products function.
How images and texts are placed, colored, and arranged establishes the parameters within which we all receive and assess visual media and their subjects, yet these mechanics often go unnoticed by the untrained eye or are unremarkable to consumers less interested in advertisement’s construction than its emotional impact. Thanks to her training, however, Cwynar is capable of seeing through myriad design conventions and teases apart how graphics induce desire or disgust in their viewers. Her practice owes a debt to conceptual and appropriation work done in the 1970s and ’80s by artists like Sherrie Levine and Sarah Charlesworth, both credited in “Gilded Age,” but Cwynar takes their insights further and applies them to Web design in addition to print.
For instance, 141 Pictures of Sophie, 1, 2, and 3 (2019)—displayed in the room next to Cover Girl—unpacks the rules that structure online fashion photo shoots. A petite redhead, attractive in a bland way, is photographed three times in Cwynar’s studio against a backdrop printed with a square grid pattern: in the first image, facing directly forward; in the next, angled at a slight leftward tilt; and in the third, turned away from the beholder. The subject, Sophie, is a popular Web model, and the three-part configuration mirrors the way models are frequently shot for online clothing sales in a three-point turn that displays the front, side, and back of a garment. Cwynar has made this fact visible by taping and attaching over the large-scale studio portraits layers of smaller pictures of Sophie standing in identical positions printed from Web pages (mainly Ssense, a high-end fashion, editorial, and e-commerce platform) and cut out. Cwynar then rephotographed the ensemble, giving the final composition an air of both professionalism and amateurism: The pieces of conspicuous tape, the imperfect, slightly jagged scissor cuts, and the lovingly handmade quality of the arrangement—as you might see on a mood board or locker door—feel at odds with the flat glossiness of its format.
Cwynar copies e-commerce photography but does so imperfectly and with an intentional degree of error and eccentricity that claims it as her own. The photographs force us to confront ostensibly ordinary images, highlighting the disjuncture between the Sophie depicted in the studio and her sleeker digital twin, who has benefited from some expert airbrushing and color correction. An homage to the Photoshop proletariat, the piece hints at the labor that goes into making Ssense Sophie, who has far dewier skin and much brighter crimson hair than the real, nondigitized Sophie. The juxtaposition shows how old techniques of image doctoring persist online in newer and subtler forms and offers a sharp take on the internet as a medium that innovates but does not entirely invent. Cwynar’s skill in illuminating both the electrifying newness and continuities and regressions of Web culture is praiseworthy and makes her one of the most captivating photographers of the millennial generation.
If 141 Pictures of Sophie demonstrates how the Internet gives novel form to old politics, in the ways it objectifies women and touches up reality, then its neighboring piece 432 Nefertitis (2015) illustrates how Web browsers function as something like time machines, operating as portals through which we can explore images, objects, and people of millennia past. Another collage, 432 Nefertitis assembles hundreds of pictures of Nefertiti’s famous circa 1340 BCE bust, with high cheekbones and kohl-lined eyes, in a shape that resembles open browser windows on a computer screen. Sophie’s and Nefertiti’s idealized forms—a twentysomething model and one of the beauty industry’s most ancient references—circulate in the same temporal space of the Internet, ready for us to view, download, print, and share. A Rococo Base (2018) is similarly anachronistic in its pairings: Resembling a visual-culture junk drawer, its surface displays feminine frills from across the ages—eyeshadow palettes in Barbie hues, pastel Post-it notes, photographs of contemporary runway looks, and part of a reproduction of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s 1778 painting of Marie Antoinette. Cropped from the larger painting and removed from its 18th-century background, the queen’s pose reads more coquettish cover girl than stoic royalty. The face that launched a thousand products.
In all her bouffant-haired, pale-powder-faced splendor, Marie Antoinette has gone too far by today’s standards. She is overdone: kitsch and, to many, unsightly. Though her look may be passé, it is hard to claim that her quest for picture-perfect beauty is similarly outdated. Women have long been tasked with the impossible mission to be both beautiful and natural. Society has demanded that women be pleasing to the eye, then castigated them for falsity and capriciousness when, to do so, they turned, as did Marie Antoinette, to the aid of rouges and paints. As Cwynar’s work shows, the times may change, but societal expectations of women as standard bearers of so-called tasteful beauty—one that enhances inside the bounds of plausibility—have remained, in many ways, remarkably the same. The creamy pinks and porcelain whites of the rococo may be unsubtle to modern eyes, but are they so unlike the translucent shimmers of Glossier? Aren’t they ultimately all just shades of the same thing?