Remai Modern, Saskatoon, SK
January 30- August 22, 2021
By Madeline Bogoch
“Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard,” claimed writer Naomi Wolf in her 1990 bestseller The Beauty Myth. I hesitate to open with this quote, as much of the book has not aged well, and Wolf’s recent gleeful tirades against vaccination and public health measures have further discredited any cultural authority the text still held. Despite these detractions, the notion of beauty as a political ideal has endured and is the conceptual terrain explored by artist Sara Cwynar in her recent exhibition, Source. Those familiar with Cwynar’s prior work will recognize the artist’s signature mix of vintage props and feminist-inflected pop-culture critique, tropes which are instrumentalized in Source to examine how late capitalism dictates our collective visual language.
At the beginning of Red Film, the narrator states: “I am talking about American patterns and French painters” as a variety of cosmetics named for the painter Cézanne are displayed. Red Film is the third installment in a trilogy exploring how beauty and desirability are quantified and is featured here as part of the exhibition. The film is presented alongside two other works by Cwynar: Guide, a series of large-scale photographs, and an installation (also titled) Source, comprising a double-layered glass partition stretching across the length of the gallery. Within the plexiglass, Cwynar displays a collection of found images and texts that broadly elicit the themes synthesized in the rest of the show. The materials include a selection of critical theory texts (highlighted and underlined, evoking a lived-in quality), fashion and nature photography, and reproductions of historical paintings. Marilyn Monroe appears in paper doll form, a recurring figure in Cwynar’s work, and an icon of beauty reinforced by endless reproduction. Monroe’s presence acts as a foil to Cwynar’s textual sources, highlighting the cognitive dissonance between the desire for beauty and an awareness of its most toxic machinations, a tension palpably felt throughout the exhibition.
As feminist discourse has entered the mainstream, it’s an idea that has been exploited for profit by mobilizing the language of empowerment to sell consumer goods.
Trained as a graphic designer, Cwynar’s visually seductive works demonstrate a honed fluency in commercial aesthetics. Her design background is most apparent in Guide, a selection of vinyl photographs plastered across the gallery walls, with smaller monitors embedded in them. If Source reflects Cwynar’s studio process of gathering materials, then Guide represents the intermediary phase, during which the synaptic nodes between the sources begin to take shape. This sense of provisionality is emphasized by Cwynar’s use of a green screen in several photos, one of which features her mid-scream, wearing Air Pods and a t-shirt printed with a portrait of Bernie Sanders alongside text reading “Rage Against the Machine.” With a degree of embarrassment, I’ll admit to recognizing the shirt, which was well-publicized after being worn by model Emily Ratajkowski last year—more on her later. Socialism, like feminism, could be said to be having a moment, as evidenced by the cult popularity of the shirt and Sanders himself. Yet Cwynar’s expression of inner conflict suggests an awareness of the limitation of consumerism as a form of political consciousness. While not mutually exclusive, the image evokes a timely consideration of the representation of politics versus the practice of one.
Included in the plexiglass partition is an essay by the aforementioned Ratajkowski titled “Buying Myself Back: When Does a Model Own Her Own Image.”The essay details the author’s experience being dispossessed of her visual likeness and the challenge of regaining control in an era of rampant image proliferation and commodification. The piece received considerable attention, garnering both praise, for Ratajkowski’s frank and engaging writing style, and backlash from those quick to point out the hypocrisy of the author condemning an industry while continuing to profit from it significantly. Ratajkowski is not alone in her conflation of financial success and empowerment, but to follow this suggestion to its logical conclusion leads to a bleak assessment of the potential of feminist politics to serve anyone other than the wealthiest and most privileged women. As feminist discourse has entered the mainstream, it’s an idea that has been exploited for profit by mobilizing the language of empowerment to sell consumer goods. This very phenomenon is parodied in Red Film when the artist declares, “I am speaking now from the inside of power… Woman creates life, man creates art, but not anymore suckers. I can buy anything I want.” But of course, what we want is not immune from politics—beauty, and the allure of that which promises us access to it are both manufactured products. The cheeky and ambivalent tone in which Cwynar delivers the line suggests that she is acutely aware of how easily dissent is co-opted by the systems it seeks to dismantle.
There’s a self-reflexive underpinning to Cwynar’s brand of critique. Implicated in her line of questioning is art itself, particularly its dual function as both a tool of cultural critique and a luxury commodity. Cwynar implicates art (and artists) as part of a system that sustains the symbolic efficiency of desire and beauty. Although this exchange is most explicitly played out in Source through references to Baroque and Impressionist art, this transaction remains relevant to the contemporary landscape in which artists are incentivized to participate in self-branding, and cultural capital is increasingly brokered as a liquid asset.
Throughout Red Film the narrator offers a barrage of cryptic statements against an ever-changing backdrop of imagery including red-clad dancers, the hypnotic mechanical motions of a cosmetic production line, and a close-up of boldly painted red lips belonging to Cwynar’s frequent collaborator, Tracy Ma. At one point Cwynar appears onscreen, but as she opens her mouth to speak, the voice that comes out is not hers but that of the calm and self-possessed male narrator. Reminiscent of Mark Fisher’s “slow cancellation of the future,” which mourns the cessation of novelty in a culture of endless recirculation, Cwynar evokes the familiar anxiety of inauthenticity, that our ideas and words are not our own but merely poor imitations of sources we’ve absorbed along the way. While Cwynar exposes how both desire and beauty are fraught constructs, she stops short of implying we are powerless in this. We may never fully extricate what we want from what we’re told we ought to want, but detangling the knots which form our desires remains a worthwhile endeavour. As Cwynar says in Red Film, “I am living in the space between pure desire and actual enjoyment, and I don’t mind at all.”
 Emily Ratajkowski, “Buying Myself Back When does a model own her own image?” The Cut, September 15, 2020, https://www.thecut.com/article/emily-ratajkowski-owning-my-image-essay.html.
 Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures (United Kingdom: Zero Books, 2013).