How One Artist Uses Wallpaper to Talk About Beauty, Architectural Digest

Posted 08/15/19


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? 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.”

To create the pattern, Cwynar began at the bookshelf, scouring encyclopedias. She picked out the most well-known modern paintings, scanned these reproductions into her computer—stains, spots, and all— and then digitally toyed with the scans in Photoshop. “One thing that’s important to the wallpaper is that you can see the printing dots and textures of the reproductions, so it’s not even about the actual artwork anymore,” Cwynar says. After this digital rearranging, patterns emerged. Trends in the shapes, aesthetics, and depictions of women’s bodies rise to the top of Cwynar’s optics (no doubt due to the era’s most celebrated artists being male).

Though she thinks deeply about trends, Cwynar is not prone to following them in her artistic practice. Citing rose gold accessories and sweatpants as examples, Cwynar investigates the cyclical return of trends, and whether participation in them detracts from the meaning of one’s work—or if it’s inevitable.

Who can ever be safe from such influence? The artists in 72 Pictures likely didn’t follow trends consciously, yet their practices bred trends within the global modern art movement. Like decorators who scour archives and museums professionally for inspiration, this isn’t due to a lack of individual perspective as much as proximity and resourcefulness; we are never islands.

When asked if dismantling some of the world’s best-known works was sentimental, Cwynar notes that most viewers interact with reproductions of these pieces already. Andy Warhol’s soup cans, for example, are less likely to be encountered in the flesh than on a stranger’s canvas tote. Ditto a Mondrian composition and a color-block mug at the Met’s gift shop. “It’s about how art gets commodified and recycled into things that can be sold [or] literally placed on something to make it seem like it has a value or an aura,” she says.

“That’s something I think about a lot in my work—how things are changed in meaning and in value after they are touched and understood by other people,” Cwynar adds. “And that’s what trends are too.”


Getting Your Weather Report at the Art Museum, Hyperallergic

Posted 02/18/20


Climate-themed art has never seemed more visible or timely. At the 2019 Venice Biennale, for example, the Lithuanian Pavilion received the Golden Lion award for its beachy dramatization of our species’ climate anxiety, Sun & Sea (Marina) (2019), while The Brooklyn Rail organized a massive eco-themed satellite group exhibition at Venice, Artists Need To Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum. The greater New York region, my own beat, has seen no shortage recently of ambitious eco-art group exhibitions: Storm King Art Center’s 2018 Indicators: Artists on Climate Change; Wave Hill’s 2018 Ecological Consciousness: Artist as Instigator; the Princeton Art Museum’s 2018-19 Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment; the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum’s 2019-20 Nature Triennial. In each case, the curators did an excellent job tailoring the show to the unique location and mission of its host institution.

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s ethereal group show, Weather Report, organized by Exhibitions Director Richard Klein, is similarly felicitous in its design. The Aldrich was founded as a collecting museum in 1964 by fashion designer and art collector Larry Aldrich, but deaccessioned its permanent collection in 1981 to become a Kunsthalle-style venue for showcasing work by emerging and under-recognized contemporary artists. Just as a Kunsthalle’s programming can serve as a barometer of an art scene, Weather Report implies that a group show can serve as a barometer of a given subject or theme, in this case earth’s climate. Yet the title also implies a level of timeliness — a regular update on conditions — unavailable to large group exhibitions, which can require years of involved planning to realize. The artworks in Weather Report confront their own untimeliness, in news cycle terms, through appeals to a deeper, more cosmic, sense of space and time, as well as the incorporation of the scientific tools that humans use to apprehend the planet’s atmosphere.

The row of Byron Kim’s beguiling, blue-and-white Sunday Paintings (2001–present) in the entry hallway sets a ruminative, airy tone. Each canvas in the ongoing weekly series offers a porthole-sized glimpse of one Sunday’s sky, overlaid with a diaristic handwritten paragraph overlaid. Kim’s deceptively simple play on hobbyist painting contrasts the quotidian vicissitudes of terrestrial life with the heavens’ gauzy indifference. Upstairs, Ayumi Ishii’s gossamer “The Breath from Which the Clouds are Formed” (2015) and Jitish Kallat’s shapeshifting Rain Study series (2017) also turn on subtle contrasts between above and below. The latter look like straightforward drawings of astronomical charts but the artist incorporates rainwater filtered through stencils to depict nighttime stars as splotches of negative space. The former artwork consists of a grid of 50 soothing digital prints, each apparently depicting a wispy cloud against a clear blue sky. However, only half the photographs depict actual clouds; the other half are of Ishii’s breath on paper treated with thermochromic pigment. The indistinguishability of the two subjects from one another posits the human breath as a pervasive, if modest and invisible, component of the planet’s atmosphere.

The interplay between earth and sky, human and non-human, heaviness and lightness, is even more pronounced in other works. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s “Storm Prototype” (2007) renders data on supercell thunderstorms as two bulky, brain-shaped metallic abstractions that hang from the ceiling; the sculptures’ reflective aluminum leaf surfaces give them a buoyant sheen yet their visual solidity, as well as their proximity to the floor, bespeak heft The prickly, multicolored swirls of Nick Cave’s circular mixed-media wall hanging, “Tondo” (2018), also convey unease: the work’s hurly-burly abstraction derives from Doppler radar images of cataclysmic weather combined with brain scans of black youth suffering from gun violence-related PTSD. Barbara Bloom’s Some flawed place in the iron dark of the world. (McCarthy) (2015) lowers empyrean weather near to the ground by translating novelist Cormac McCarthy’s description of a thunderstorm into braille bumps on a hand-tufted, charcoal-colored wool carpet.

Feats of literal and figurative translation are everywhere in Weather Report, and they are of particular importance in representations of scientific data and imagery. In “First Look at the World’s Weather” (1973), for example, Nancy Graves renders a weather satellite global photomosaic as a black-and-white pointillist composition; the Rorschach-esque result, which looks like standard issue abstraction until you know its referent, hints at the tug-of-war between appearance and informational content in artworks about science. This same tension manifests in scientist Amanda Bunce’s under-aestheticized “Tree Sway” (2019), the exhibition’s lone contribution by a non-artist. In it, a video monitor livestreams footage of a white pine tree on the museum’s campus, whose movements are measured by an inclinometer. The inclusion of a purely scientific work makes sense, given the exhibition’s theme, but the feed’s glacial pace and dry, technical information — “[ 41 .27770, -73.4958]” — may feel off-putting to some viewers.

Weather Report thus raises the question of how art can best to communicate information about the planet’s climate. It’s a question whose implications extend beyond the realm of aesthetics. However dazzling, artworks that show a bird’s-eye perspective— a crowd-pleasing sub-genre of landscape art — that includes work by contemporary artists such as Ed Burtynsky and Zaria Forman — increasingly feel dissatisfying. For example, segments of Ellen Harvey’s enormous, painstakingly detailed black-and-white painting, in acrylic and oil, of Florida Coastline, “The Mermaid: Two Incompatible Systems Intimately Linked” (2019) — designed to span a 100-foot-wide wall in the Miami Beach Convention Center as part of the Miami Beach Art in Public Places Program — impress simply by virtue of their size. But, at least when installed in a geographically distant gallery, the painting’s impersonal vantage point minimizes the coastal region’s imperiled, ground-level climate realities.

Humor can perhaps convey a more effective sense of the distance between our ant-like human lives and the larger climatic forces threatening the viability of those lives as we’ve known them. Smartly situated in the same room as Graves’s and Harvey’s paintings, Swedish duo Bigert & Bergström’s sculptures, “The Russian Campaign 1812” and “Teutoburg Forest 9 CE” (both 2017), depict weather events that influenced the course of military history as pop-camp versions of weather report graphics. The shiny and colorful painted stainless steel objects—a group of Shamrock green bars from which dangle apostrophe-shaped raindrops; silver, asterisk-shaped snowflakes clustered on the floor—playfully send up the way in which meteorology’s visuals abstract weather from its harshest historical and experiential consequences.

Josh Callaghan’s Chicago Snow (2013) series portrays one such human-scaled consequence with understated humor. The small, jagged foam sculptures are coated with resin, sand, and other materials to resemble partially melted clumps of polluted snow. Encountered on a gallery floor rather than a city sidewalk, the lifelike clumps are droll, uncomfortable reminders of urban pollution’s normalization. Similar to Ishii’s nearby cloud/breath grid, Chicago Snow commingles the celestial with the terrestrial, the natural with the anthropogenic; however, unlike “The Breath from Which the Clouds are Formed,” there’s a conspicuous contrast here between weather in its pristine state and weather covered in our species’ grimy fingerprints.

Like Chicago Snow’s depiction of pollution’s traces, numerous other works in Weather Report also operate by means of the trace, suggesting that art’s capacity for poetic indirection helps convey climate subtleties that might elude purely informational modes of address. For example, Pat Pickett’s scraggly collaborative drawings with trees — in which the artist affixes pens to branches, which mark up nearby, tripod-mounted paper when the wind blows — capture a surprisingly agitated record of tree branch movement that is more visually evocative than “Tree Sway.” Sara Bouchard’s “Weather Box” (2014), which represents New York City weather data as punch card scores playable on a music box, transforms prosaic meteorological data into poetic plinks and echoes. Hitoshi Nomura’s “Time Arrow: Oxygen -183° C” (1993) consists of a glass flask whose steamy, blueish interior captures the visual effects of liquid oxygen’s evaporation process. Bryan Nash Gill’s somber wood relief print of a tree trunk cross-section, “Ash” (2003), presents a trace (the internal rings that constitute the tree’s record of aging) by means of a trace (the print’s inky impression).

As poetic intimations of time’s passage, aesthetic traces are well-suited to depict not only weather’s quotidian ups and downs but also climate change’s seismic and harder to fathom consequences. Part of what makes anthropogenic climate change a wicked problem — the social planner’s term for a problem whose incomplete, contradictory, or changing nature makes it difficult to recognize, let alone solve — is that many of its most harmful effects take place on long-term time scales that human beings can’t easily account for in our short-term decision making. Even if you understand, intellectually, that disposable coffee cups cause gradual harm to others across space and time, it can be hard, emotionally, to care about those intangible consequences when you’re tired and without other options for caffeine.

Weather Report’s artworks confront us with the insidious depth and extent of such climate entanglements. Nowhere is this dizzying interconnectedness more succinctly illustrated than in Colin McMullan’s “Clouds Filtered through Trees” (2019), which consists of an almost-seven-foot tall water cooler that resembles a laboratory beaker and dispenses rainwater captured from the museum’s roof and filtered through white pine tree sapwood. “NOTICE,” warns a text affixed to a nearby window, “RAINWATER MAY CONTAIN/ UNRECOGNIZABLE TRACES OF/ Ancestral indigenous land stewardship/ Tap water with elevated lead from municipal neglect/ Mercurial soot from coal fired power plants.” In both form and content, McMullan’s artistic water cooler serves, fittingly, as a conduit between earth and sky, human and non-human. Just as fitting, its tainted contents taste indistinguishable from all the other water we unthinkingly consume.

Weather Report continues at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (258 Main St, Ridgefield, CT) through March 29.


Ellen Harvey’s Mural Depicting A Slice of South Florida Travels Abroad, The Art Newspaper

Posted 12/7/19


The Miami Beach Convention Center is looking sharper than ever for this year’s edition of Art Basel, thanks in part to a series of new artist commissions installed this spring and officially unveiled this week. Among them is Ellen Harvey’s monumental glass mural Atlantis—a black-and-white slice of the South Florida map, from the Everglades wilderness to the west to the ultra-developed Miami city grid on the east—located upstairs near the entrance to the new Meridians section.

Those not in Miami this week can still see a version of the work at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the British-American artist is currently showing the hand-drawn aluminium panels that were the basis for the permanent work, in the atmospheric group exhibition Weather Report (until 29 March 2020). That iteration is alternatively titled The Mermaid: Two Incompatible Systems Intimately Joined, because, the artist says, “it is literally a half-human, half-natural hybrid”.

The work will also travel to Margate in 2020, when the British-born, New York-based artist will have a solo show at Turner Contemporary. The Disappointed Tourist: Ellen Harvey (23 May-6 September 2020) is centred on a new project launching later this month in which the artist asks visitors to submit a place they would like to visit, but cannot, because it no longer exists or is otherwise inaccessible. “People feel these things really personally, but they need to realise it happens to everyone; they aren’t alone in their loss,” Harvey says.


Best Art of 2019, The New York Times

Posted 12/6/19


Unexpected Delights

1. MoMA’s Reopening

For New York, the signal event of the year was October’s reopening of the Museum of Modern Art with its newly expanded, improved building and more inclusive, historically accurate permanent collection hang, which fleshes out the epic of Modernism with works by women, artists of color and non-Westerners. There are more creature comforts: lots of chairs by Jean Prouvé and sofas by Charlotte Perriand in the lobby, for example. And for the occasion, all other exhibitions on view were also drawn from the permanent collection, with the latest show from the “Artist’s Choice” series being especially notable. Titled “The Shape of Shape,” it was chosen by the New York painter Amy Sillman, who orchestrated a dense installation that compared and contrasted work by around 70 artists. The result was a visual feast that might also be read as a reminder to MoMA’s brainy curators that pleasure is its own form of knowledge.

2. ‘Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory’ at the Met Breuer

This ravishing retrospective traces the changing expanses — waves, night skies, desert floors — over six decades, illuminating the artist’s penchant for revealing the infinite in the intimate (and vice versa) while pitting perception, philosophy and patient process against one another. An impressive argument for her greatness, the show also emphasized the strengths of Marcel Breuer’s landmark building in a rare collaboration of artist, curator and architecture.

3. Leonora Carrington at Gallery Wendi Norris of San Francisco, in New York

This pop-up exhibition offered further evidence that some of the best Surrealist paintings were made by women working in Mexico. Surveying the art by the well-born rebellious Brit Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), it revealed a fantastical imagination influenced in part by myths learned as a child from her Scottish mother and nanny. There were several showstopping canvases, especially “And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur” (1953), which MoMA acquired and put on view as a centerpiece in its reconfigured Surrealist gallery. It depicts an orange-robed female Minotaur and a pale flowerlike creature greeting two children in black perhaps as they return from school, with a lithe spirit trailing behind them. A genre scene it is not.

4. ‘John Dunkley: Neither Day Nor Night’ at the American Folk Art Museum This exhibition (organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami) introduced the work of the self-taught Jamaican artist to American audiences. Part folk artist, part Surrealist, Dunkley (1891-1947) was best in luminous landscapes in which strange trees, outsize plants and sudden waterfalls cast a hypnotic spell.

5. ‘Amy Sherald: The Heart of the Matter,’ at Hauser & Wirth

The relatively unknown Ms. Sherald shot to fame in 2017 when she was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Michelle Obama’s official portrait, and soon after achieved representation by a blue-chip gallery that quickly scheduled her New York debut. Ms. Sherald, who is 46, rose to the occasion, holding down an enormous space with just seven new portraits, also of black subjects, that took her formally distinctive, beautifully painted realism to a new level.

6. ‘A Specific Eye: Seven Collections’ at Demisch Danant This Greenwich Village design gallery invited several art-related sorts — artists, photographers and art dealers — to display some of their most cherished objects on furniture designed in the 1960s by Maria Pergay (still working at 89). The resulting arrangements had a cabinet of curiosities intensity. This could be a biannual event. A trove of 3,000 quilts by African-American artists is surely one of the most transformative museum gifts of the late 20th-century. Among the riches of the Eli Leon collection are over 100 dazzling quilts and other textile works by Rosie Lee Tompkins, (1936-2006), one of the few women in the top tier of American outsider artists. The collection will form the basis of a major retrospective that opens at BAMPFA on Feb. 19, 2020.

7. Eli Leon Collection at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

A trove of 3,000 quilts by African-American artists is surely one of the most transformative museum gifts of the late 20th-century. Among the riches of the Eli Leon collection are over 100 dazzling quilts and other textile works by Rosie Lee Tompkins, (1936-2006), one of the few women in the top tier of American outsider artists. The collection will form the basis of a major retrospective that opens at BAMPFA on Feb. 19, 2020.

9. ‘Simone Fattal: Works and Days’ at MoMA/P.S.1

The first museum exhibition devoted to this Syrian-born Lebanese artist (who has lived for many years in the United States and Paris) revealed a polymathic talent interested in painting, drawing and film, but best represented by a profusion of mostly small, roughly improvised glazed ceramic sculptures dizzying in their suggestions: of animals, figures, ancient artifacts, religious rituals, tourist souvenirs, desert structures ruined by war, and, always, of life lived and the encroachments of time. The variety, carefreeness and layered meanings added up to a body of work with few equals in the realm of ceramic sculpture.

10. The Art World Mourns Okwui Enwezor, Virginia Zabriskie, Takis, Leon Kossoff, Matthew Wong, Carolee Schneemann, Ed Clark, Francisco Toledo, Bruce W. Ferguson, Mavis Pusey, Lutz Bacher, Robert Ryman, Gillian Jagger, Joyce Pensato, Mary Abbott, Charles Ginnever, Marisa Merz, Claude Lalanne, Ronald Jones, Ingo Maurer, John Giorno, David Koloane, Huguette Caland, Jill Freedman, Robert Frank, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Dan Robbins, I.M. Pei, Stanley Tigerman, Douglas Crimp, Hildegard Bachert.

Visions and Revisions

1. Bad Money

The most radical museum events of 2019 were the many individual protests aimed at questionable sources of art patronage. Nan Goldin called for institutions to cut ties with the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin; Decolonize This Place demanded the ouster of the Whitney board’s vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, whose company, Safariland, manufactures tear gas; the Guerrilla Girls went after the Museum of Modern Art trustees Leon Black and Glenn Dubin for their business relationships with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein; several activist groups targeted a third MoMA trustee, Larry Fink, over his company’s investment in the private prison industry. But, goes an old argument, hasn’t art always been bankrolled by bad money? Sure, goes the new thinking, but why should that be O.K.?

2. A Historic Biennial

The 2019 Whitney Biennial made history: Of its 75 artists, a majority were nonwhite, and half were women. That the art chosen by the curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, complicated identities, rather than narrowing them down, added to the show’s politics of resistance.

3. A Museum Under Revision

On the occasion of its reopening, after a $450 million, 47,000-square-foot expansion, MoMA took steps, cautious but significant, toward rethinking the obsolete white, male, nationalist version of Modernism that has long been its brand. The obvious difference now is the presence of “difference” itself in the form of art — a lot recently acquired — from Africa, Asia, South America and African America, and an unprecedented amount of work by women. Is the rethinking foundation-shaking or skin-deep? Time will tell. The museum promises a complete rehanging of the permanent-collection galleries every 18 months, and all eyes will be on the first rotation. With much to admire and much to argue with, the general direction feels right.

4. A Plus

Exhibitions celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the budding gay liberation movement were widespread last summer. There were several in New York, and, as commemorations tend to do, they felt simultaneously resurrecting and entombing. The exception was the very lively “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” at the Brooklyn Museum. About to close (it is on view through Dec. 8), it’s a survey of new art that carries the story of liberation forward into the L.G.B.T.Q.+ present and into realms of gender fluidity that sometimes found a chilly reception within the gay movement itself in the L.G.B.-only days of 1969.

5. Breaking News From the Past

The most innovative historical show I saw last season was “The World Between Empires: Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It took the classic ancient-art-survey model, with its chronological lineup of archaeological treasures, and filtered it through 21st-century realities. Several of the sites considered — Palmyra and Dura-Europos in Syria, Hatra in Iraq — have in recent years been subject to campaigns of ideology-driven destruction, disasters that the show addressed directly and throughout.

6. True Monuments

Contemporary public sculpture has an iffy track record, but we got sterling examples this year. Simone Leigh’s “Brick House,” a 16-foot-tall bronze figure of a black woman merging with an African architectural form sits commandingly on the spur of the High Line that bridges 10th Avenue. Four luminous bronze female figures by Wangechi Mutu fill the once empty sculptural niches on the Met’s Fifth Avenue facade. And, in an extension of Siah Armajani’s traveling survey at the Met Breuer, the Public Art Fund installed that artist’s ineffably poetic “Bridge Over Tree” on the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

7. Retrospectives, Finally

In 2019, museums trained a spotlight on important but little-known artists in retrospectives of work by Alvin Baltrop at the Bronx Museum; Harmony Hammond at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn; Mrinalini Mukherjee at the Met Breuer; and Zilia Sánchez at the Phillips Collection in Washington (and now at El Museo del Barrio in New York). For me, the most stirring survey of all was an informal one. On a visit to Medellín, Colombia, I was taken into the storage area of the city’s Museum of Modern Art, where the director, Emiliano Valdés, pulled out rack after rack of paintings by the great Colombian political artist Débora Arango (1907-2005).

8. Gallery Solos

Outstanding, among the short-term sightings of the season, were Alex Katz’s big, dark, deep landscapes at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise; William Powhida’s exquisitely incisive, connect-the-dots dissections of art and politics (including the Kanders affair) at Postmasters; and a David Hammons solo at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles which, blocks away from one of the country’s largest urban homeless encampments, included its own tent city.

9. A Bigness Problem

Hauser & Wirth was one of a handful of international gallery franchises — Gagosian and David Zwirner are others — busy hoarding artists and real estate. Zwirner made interestingly offbeat things of its imperial power in two excellent group shows: “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,” put together by the critic Hilton Als, and “The Young and Evil,” organized by the artist and writer Jarrett Earnest. Gagosian, by contrast, continued to calcify into utter predictability. It is now often the equivalent of a luxury car showroom and an art bank.

10. Losses

In October, New York City’s much-admired cultural affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl, who knows local art and its history better than anyone in town, abruptly resigned from his post. In July, the blind poet and East Village legend Steve Cannon, founder of the journal A Gathering of the Tribes, died, and with him went the spiritual archive of an irrecoverable New York era.

11. Moving Up

This year, as in most years, I looked to smaller museums and university galleries for unusually inspiring and instructive shows. I found a gem in “Dharma and Punya: Buddhist Ritual Art of Nepal” at Cantor Art Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Assembled by two scholars, Jinah Kim and Todd T. Lewis, it uses objects to tell a tale of the little-studied traditions of a popular religious art in the Kathmandu Valley, an art that is devotional, intensely social and inevitably political, and one that takes the pursuit of do-no-harm generosity as its subject, creed and goal.

Art for Our Moment

1. ‘Sun & Sea (Marina)’

Their names are Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte — and these friends from Kaunas, Lithuania, the immensely deserving winners of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale, created an unforgettable performance whose even temper cloaked an ecological sucker punch. In “Sun & Sea (Marina),” an opera staged continuously on an artificial beach, bathers sang blithely of package holidays and disposable water bottles, and faintly sensed that the seasons are coming unstuck. In November, Venice’s worst flooding in half a century shuttered the Biennale and inundated Saint Mark’s Basilica, just as the populist-led regional government rejected a raft of climate measures. But some of the Lithuanian pavilion’s sand has been recycled, to bulk up an island disintegrating into the lagoon.

2. Okwui Enwezor

Some deaths feel like the end of an era — but the example of Okwui Enwezor, the most significant curator of the last 30 years, will govern for decades over the global art world he helped forge. In exhibitions like the ravishing “El Anatsui: Triumphant Scale,”which opened at the Haus der Kunst in Munich just before his death in March, the Nigerian modeled a broader artistic discourse nourished by politics, economics and current events, and affirmed that African artists were as “contemporary” as their Western counterparts. If it now seems self-evident that an exhibit with new art only from the United States and Europe is provincial, that is because of Okwui, who in art and in life made cosmopolitanism an ethical duty.

3. MoMA Turns South

Among the inaugural offerings at the larger, nimbler, hardly perfect, much improved Museum of Modern Art, the most important is “Sur Moderno”: a stupefying showcase of more than 200 midcentury abstract works from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. These gifts from the collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros make essential viewing on their own; when they later get integrated into MoMA’s refreshed collection displays, they will reshape a museum approaching fluency in Spanish and Portuguese.

4. ‘Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey’

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exquisite exhibition of these architectural images of the 1840s — including the first photos taken of Athens, Cairo and Jerusalem — was one of the finest shows of early photography I’ve ever seen. Its intertwined themes of technology, colonialism and wanderlust still resound in the time of Google Street View.

5. New Old Masters …

Three museums reclaimed undersung heroes of European art of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Brussels’s Center for Fine Arts, known as Bozar, brought out the paintings, prints and tapestries of the all-media monster Bernard van Orley; the Palazzo Reale in Milan revived Antonello da Messina, the Sicilian savant; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington went to bat for Verrocchio, the artistic paterfamilias of Medici Florence. Add to these a new show of the Renaissance women Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and old canvases are looking mighty fresh.

6. … and One (Leonardo) Reborn

The Musée du Louvre’s “Leonardo da Vinci” took a decade to organize, with loans uncertain until opening day. But the curators Vincent Delieuvin and Louis Frank pulled off a benchmark achievement in cobwebs-clearing, which sloughed off celebrity and conspiracy and returned Leonardo to us as a genuine artist. The very archetype of a scholarly blockbuster.

7. ‘Matthew Barney: Redoubt’

Mr. Barney’s return to his birth state of Idaho inspired his greatest film since the “Cremaster” cycle, infused with a new agility thanks to the intrepid dancer and choreographer Eleanor Bauer. His freer gaze on American exceptionalism and environmental degradation was also channeled into electroplated etchings and ambitious multimetal sculptures, now at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

8. Lee Ufan

In Beacon, N.Y., the Dia Art Foundation has been undertaking a quiet but considerable broadening of its collection — and made its most profound new addition this summer, with an impeccable new display by Lee Ufan, Korea’s most significant sculptor. In the company of Mr. Lee’s delicate contrapuntal arrangements of sand, rope and boulders, Dia’s American and German all-stars suddenly seemed a bit ponderous.

9. Christodoulos Panayiotou

If you think institutional critique is a joyless enterprise, two heart-stopping shows by this Cypriot artist reveal the romance in mining the museum. At the Camden Arts Center in London, Mr. Panayiotou took the doors off their hinges and replaced window panes with pink glass to equate two sundered islands: his own Mediterranean homeland and Brexit-divided Britain. And at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, he evoked the wreckage of time through the most subdued gestures, like a Rodin installed backward and a carpet exhumed from the museum’s trash.

10. The Paris Fire Brigade

History tumbles toward oblivion, yet still heroes rush in. The blaze that engulfed Notre-Dame on April 15 came much closer than first acknowledged to annihilating the 850-year-old cathedral. It stands, roofless but intact, thanks to the 600 lionhearted firefighters and engineers who risked their lives for the world’s cultural patrimony. The motto of Europe’s largest fire department befits our ecological era: “Sauver ou périr,” save or perish.


10 Must-See Hudson Valley Art Exhibits for December 2019, Chronogram

Posted 12/1/19


Why would an artist make an edition of 500 perfect replicas of a wooden match—from scratch, starting with cutting down a tree—given the fact that utilizing the art for its original purpose would cause it to go up in flames? Sheehan Saldaña’s match and approximately 50 other question-inducing works are on view at the Aldrich, where she reveals herself to be the master of the ready-remade. Beyond clever, her work touches on the anxiety implicit in the matter-of-factness of everyday objects in “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here.” Through May 17


Discover How Artists Are Grappling with the Issue of Climate Change, Art Basel

Posted 12/1/19


Magnetic blue waves hitting Tulum shores have long turned murky brown with surges of massive seaweed mats occupying the Caribbean Sea; brutal fires in the Amazon rainforest have destroyed wildlife and flora at grave scales. In addition to raising their voices on social matters such as justice and identity, many contemporary artists and institutions refuse to remain silent about pressing environmental issues, particularly in reaction to the current government’s perpetual disregard of the subject’s alarming urgency. Aware of environmental decline’s long-term effects on future generations, a growing number of artists underline the importance of altruism for catastrophes impacting remote parts of the globe as much as those with direct hurdles in their daily lives.

Environmental decay in the Caribbean Sea is also the subject for the group exhibition ‘ALLIGA’ at Tulum’s SFER IK (an interdisciplinary, avant-garde exhibition space), where works by Cecilia Bengolea, Sissel Tolaas, Ernesto Neto, and Aki Inomata meld into the museum’s mesmerizing architecture that mixes wooden log paths with winding concrete walls. Berlin-based Tolaas created a scent piece smeared across the museum’s two separate walls, where smells extracted from the region’s clean and seaweed-contaminated waters urge viewers to face environmental decline firsthand. ‘We created conditions of seaweed overgrowth with insufficient sewage systems, Amazon fires and unconscious agriculture,’ explains exhibition curator Claudia Paetzold, who plans to raise public awareness with workshops on sargassum growth throughout the exhibition. The seas’ central role for life in and outside water is also emphasized in Swiss artist Claudia Comte’s underwater installation The Cacti Series, following a TBA21-Academy residency at Alligator Head Foundation in Portland, Jamaica. The artist installed her durable concrete sculptures in East Portland Fish Sanctuary to allow coral growth and accommodate underwater habitat, including divers who are the sole human viewers of the exhibition, which delivers a striking commentary on biodiversity in marine life.

Recent MacArthur Fellowship winner Trevor Paglen’s focus has been to draw attention to the impact that human effort can have on the environment despite the smallness of our species in the larger scheme of the cosmos. The Berlin-based artist collaborated with the Nevada Museum of Art to launch satellite Orbital Reflector into the nocturnal sky on December 3, 2018, with strictly artistic purposes. The $1.5 million ‘sculpture’, made of polyethylene plastic coated with titanium dioxide, added a not-so-subtle commentary into the orbit to remind us of our formative role in this universe, until it fell out of radar range and disappeared in space.

Among artists utilizing poetic touches to address this urgent subject is San Juan-based artist duo Allora & Calzadilla, whose recent Gladstone Gallery exhibition, ‘Cadastre’, included a wash of bright yellow flowers from Tabebuia chrysantha. The duo chose the South American tree species to convey the risk that awaits the Caribbean forests due to a range of causes including colonization and global warming.

And The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum studies changes in depictions of nature in art from romantic landscape paintings to alarming commentaries on deterioration with the group exhibition ‘Weather Report’, up now through March 29, and which includes a vast array of artists such as Nancy Graves, Andy Goldsworthy, Jitish Kallat, and Jennifer Steinkamp. The intergenerational roster of works ranges from Graves’ 1974 watercolor, graphite, and gold leaf painting Untitled (Heat Density Measurement of a Cyclone), based on early infrared satellite imagery of weather conditions, to Nick Cave’s Tondo (2018), which concocts wire, bugle beads, wood, and sequined fabric into a hypnotizing circular sculpture of the cosmos. The museum’s exhibition director, Richard Klein, organized the show upon realizing the relationship between the Earth’s weather and climate change. ‘Once my focus changed from specifically climate change to the larger and more complicated subject of the weather, the project became much more holistic, opening up to artists whose work reflected on the atmosphere in more complex and nuanced ways,’ Klein says about the necessity of an overall approach to an all-encompassing subject like climate change.

This article was originally published in Art Basel Miami Beach Magazine, available in select locations in the US.

Top image: Claudia Comte, Underwater Cacti Series, 2019. Installation view at East Portland Fish Sanctuary, as part of the artist’s TBA21–Academy residency at the Alligator Head Foundation in Portland, Jamaica. Photo by F-Stop Movies, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and TBA21–Academy.


New Aldrich Exhibit Explores the Concept of Safe Spaces, The Ridgefield Press

Posted 11/21/19


“Safe space” is a loaded term these days yet artist Zoë Sheehan Saldaña astutely mines this concept in all its paradoxes to create an exhibition that explores ideas of safe spaces and self-reliance. “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here” will be on view Nov. 24 through May 17 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield.

Sheehan’s work is a study of self-reliance through works of art that focus on creating safety, or rather, the illusion of safety. That the Brooklyn artist painstakingly made all the artworks here by hand from life jackets to “Strike Anywhere” matches that all look as authentic as their mass-produced counterparts adds another layer of meaning to the idea of self-reliance. The objects on view also examine the paradox of utopia/dystopia.

“People are clamoring for enclosure and protection, implying that these things, generally speaking, are in short supply,” writes exhibition curator Glenn Adamson in his catalog essay. “As soon as you enter [the exhibition], you find yourself in what could be called an ‘insecurity closet,’ filled with items you might seek out in an emergency: a flotation life vest, a ball of twine, hand sanitizer, a roll of bandage, a match, even a bottle of homemade ketchup,” which would be just the thing you’d want, Sheehan hypothesizes, when the apocalypse comes.

The attention to detail in her artworks is admirable. Working with only a few collaborators and learning many new skills in the process, Sheehan harvested milkweed fluff as filling for her “Life Jackets” artwork, spun twine, distilled and compounded alcohol to make sanitizer, tin-plated pins, worked with a chemist to make a flammable material for her matches, and personally collected salt in Death Valley.

“There is definitely an idea about self-reliance but there is also an understanding that self-reliance at some point is a myth — one is never wholly self-reliant,” Sheehan said. “There is a kind of futility in the gesture. At the same time you try and try and try but you always need other people.”

The exhibition alludes to issues that incite concern and fear in America today from climate change to politics. Contrasting themes run throughout the exhibition: dark vs. light, comfort vs. danger, fight vs. surrender. A comfortable hammock invites visions of lazy days while a towel seemingly carelessly thrown on the gallery floor could be a metaphor for giving in, literally “throwing in the towel.” A precisely-stacked pile of tin-plated brass pins comprises the artwork, “Wealth of Nations,” and were assembled in the method written by Adam Smith when he describes a visit to a pin factory in his book The Wealth of Nations.

Creating handmade objects for this exhibition reflects the artist’s keen interest in handmade art, not out of a sense of nostalgia but rather to allow viewers to slow down and carefully study each piece of art. “I think it slows awareness down in a way. It slows down the time that you are paying attention to something and that is really a very useful moment for me,” she said.

Sheehan’s artworks echo self-reliance yet point out the futility of acquiring commodities and possessions, which cannot provide a “way out of here” or out of what Adamson describes as a culture of fear. The exhibition’s title itself is a refrain of the opening line of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” song.

Sheehan herself admits some of the artworks will be hard for people to wrap their heads around and some of the more abstract pieces — such as a dropcloth, a single screw and a bottle of handmade ketchup — may leave some viewers scratching their heads if they are expecting to see paintings or sculptures.

“I don’t have particular ambitions for what people take away, I just hope they have an experience and they have the space to have that. Maybe there is a moment where ideally a week later they are thinking about it again and in some way they start to see the world differently around them,” Sheehan said. “That would be my hope that something stays with somebody long enough to then reflect or ripple back out into the world.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalogue, the artist’s first. The catalogue’s cover is printed with ink handmade by Sheehan.

For more information, visit


Life Imitates Art: 4 Colorful Examples, Galerie

Posted 11/18/19


Left: Contemporary photographer Sara Cwynar’s highly stylized pictures reinterpret the glamour and sentimentality of classic images. In her work Red Rose (2017), a blossom’s lush petals become otherworldly when displayed against an artificial felt background. Her first East Coast solo show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, ran through November 10. Right: Prada creative director Miuccia Prada found inspiration in Romantic motifs from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the atelier’s fall/winter 2019 collection, which reimagines the text through the symbolic feminine floral prints and larger-than-life adornments.


Forest Management Researcher Designs Museum Installation, Naturally@UCONN

Posted 11/12/19


Amanda Bunce, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, recently translated her forestry research into an art installation. In a collaboration with faculty and students in School of Fine Arts, she created a piece about tree sway for the Weather Report, an exhibit currently on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

The Weather Report explores weather phenomena and the Earth’s atmosphere through different visual media, including sculpture, drawing, painting, installation and video. According to the press release, the exhibit aims “to reveal the sky as a site where the romantic, the political, the social, and the scientific co-exist and inform one another.”

Bunce, who completed her undergraduate degree in studio art, was approached by artist Pat Pickett about turning her research into an artistic form for the exhibition. They first met at the 8th International Conference on Wind and Trees at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Mesa Laboratory in Boulder, CO in 2017.

“I gave a talk about my research and she gave a talk about her art,” says Bunce. “About a year later, Pat told me that she was in this upcoming show at the Aldrich and the organizers were looking to incorporate some science. She suggested they contact me. It’s ironic because I got my bachelor’s in art and I said, ‘That’s it for that. I’m going to do anything else.’ Now, here I am in a legitimate gallery.”

Bunce is a forest management researcher in Stormwise, an initiative that seeks to create storm-resilient forests along Connecticut roadsides in an effort to reduce the impacts falling trees and damaged limbs have on power lines during inclement weather. She works at three experiment sites in the state where treatment strategies for roadside forests are developed and studied.

“It’s a long-term project,” says Bunce. “We monitor how the trees move for a year and then we implement a forest management plan. We do a thinning, removing a bunch of trees in the area, and then monitor the movement on the remaining trees. Those trees now have more access to light, nutrients and water and they have more space to move around in the wind. All those things should make those trees stronger, healthier and less prone to falling, which mitigates the risk to power infrastructure that they pose.”

Since Bunce examines how trees move in response to wind and weather by tracking how they sway, the research seemed to be a natural fit for The Weather Report exhibit.

“I spoke with the organizers and we agreed to do this tree sway project, but I didn’t have any fancy ways of displaying it,” says Bunce.
While Bunce spends much of her time in picturesque woodland settings, the data she collects is not as visually vivid. She records the motion of trees using an inclinometer, a sensor that can register how much the tree tilts. The device is sensitive, detecting subtle movements of the tree that would be nearly impossible to recognize otherwise. The inclinometer is affixed to the base of the crown, the upper part of the tree.

“We measure coordinates, so you can map where the trees are moving,” says Bunce. “I had previously worked with another department to make a graphic of tree movement for Stormwise, so I knew it could be done. I reached out to them to see if they were interested in this project.”

Bunce contacted the Digital Experience Lab (DX Lab), a unit that focuses on using technology to create unique digital experiences in the Digital Media and Design Department (DMD). She received an enthusiastic response from Assistant Professor Joel Salisbury, director of research and user experience design and Associate Department Head Michael Vertefeuille, director of operations and emerging technology.

“Since Mike and I are both tree nerds, we were particularly excited to work with the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources,” says Salisbury. “One of the most exciting parts of this endeavor for both of us was to see the great work two of our DMD students, Renoj Varghese and Allison Marsh, as they designed and developed the visualization currently on display at the Aldrich.”

Renoj Varghese is a graduate student and web specialist in the DX Lab. Allison Marsh is an undergraduate and user design specialist.

“Our Digital Experience Lab was founded to conduct research in the areas of user experience design and digital media technology, as well as to foster trans-disciplinary partnerships within the scientific community,” says Vertefeuille. “This project was a great opportunity to collaborate with Amanda and the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources to help visualize the subtleties of tree movement in an artistic venue.”

For the museum installation, the team designed a display that creates a visual representation using real-time data received from an inclinometer attached to a tree in the Aldrich’s sculpture garden. As the tree sways in the wind, the movement is graphically rendered in one part of the screen alongside a camera feed of the tree and information from a local weather station.

“Our exhibit fits in well,” says Bunce. “You can see the tree with your eyes, but not necessarily see all the things that it’s doing, so if you point out the weather and the tree at the same time to see how they’re interacting, it’s kind of a neat thing. I think it brings you a little closer to nature and gives you a little more understanding.”

The collaboration between Bunce and the museum also included a symposium on art and weather held at Western Connecticut State University. As a featured speaker, Bunce gave a presentation entitled “The Role of Art in Science Communication – Through the Motion of Trees.”

“I got my bachelors in art and I think having that background really got me where I am,” says Bunce. “You can’t get far in science without communicating it and art helped me to communicate with people in general. Art is about getting an idea across or drawing attention to something and you need to be able to share your science or you’re not getting anywhere.”

The Weather Report exhibit runs at The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art through March 29, 2020.


‘Weather Report’ exhibit at The Aldrich goes beyond clouds and rain, The Ridgefield Press

Posted 10/24/19


From gray and stormy skies to a sunny day with pillowy clouds, many landscape paintings have historically depicted weather as a central element. Given the complexities of depicting the vagaries of weather, it almost seems unfair to label them as mere landscapes. A diverse selection of art ranging from drawings and paintings to sculptures, videos and installations — all featuring weather as the thematic subject — is on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum through March 29.

While photography and paintings have long been the dominant medium for depicting weather in the visual arts, technology is increasingly allowing artists to utilize a wider variety of media to explore weather and atmospheric effects in their artworks.

In presenting the “Weather Report” exhibition, the Aldrich wanted to present a wide sampling of international artists who reference weather in striking ways. This task is all the more impressive given the ephemeral nature of weather and the challenges artists faced in depicting clouds, rain, wind, temperature extremes and seasonality. Some artists used weather as a metaphor for war, politics, history or surveyed the effects of weather such as climate change and the relationship between man and weather.

“My primary goals were to open the viewer’s eyes to how beautiful and complicated the earth’s weather is and the fascinating and unexpected ways that artists have interpreted various aspects of the atmosphere — what is certainly the most remarkable aspect of our planet,” said Richard Klein, the museum’s exhibitions director, of his task to curate the exhibition.
The artworks span decades from Nick Cave’s “Tondo,” 2018, which uses mapping of catastrophic weather movements as a metaphor for violence in urban America to Nancy Graves’ 1974 untitled work (Heat Density Map of a Cyclone). Graves was one of the earliest artists to use satellite imagery as a source for interpreting weather. Among sculptures on view is “Storm Prototype,” a 2007 series of sculptures that Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle created to represent models of super cell thunderstorm clouds.

Klein said technology has afforded artists new methods of exploring weather through art.

“Technology, particularly satellite imagery computer modeling, and Doppler radar, have provided insight into the earth’s weather that could not of been gleaned from the human eye alone,” he said. “Artists in the exhibition use technology such as photography, computer animation, data capture, and chemistry to expand how art can reflect on weather phenomenon. It’s not just technology — science is also a huge influence on many of the artists in the exhibition.”

Asked about the challenges of capturing the ephemerality of weather in art, artist Colin McMullan said, “The style of art I often do is very ephemeral as well so the content is fitting in that sense. I would say the biggest challenge is also the biggest advantage depending on your perspective: no two experiences of weather are alike, it’s utterly subjective. I feel inspired by that very nature of it, how fleeting it is, how intangible.” His work in this exhibition is connected to the water cycle; how water flows through trees, reservoirs, and rivers, just as it flows through people, industry, and cultural histories.

“In a sense, all paintings are about atmosphere. Great paintings capture and translate a stranger’s experience into something resembling an intimate familiarity,” said artist Damian Loeb, who is represented in the exhibit with his work, “The Big Dipper.” “The atmosphere of indoor paintings can be about rendering how silence bounces off the walls, the muffled sound of rain against a distant window, and the smell of old fabric and a finished dinner. In nature, the challenge can be painting the sound of crickets, the smell of ionized air, or the sense of rapidly changing pressure, as well as the angry granite grays at the center of cumulonimbus clouds.”

Mats Bigert says the development of meteorology has historically always been connected with military ambitions to gain an upper hand on the battlefield. He and fellow artist Lars Bergstrom have created a series of sculptural works depicting weather maps in 3D form for the exhibit under the collective title: The Weather — a Synoptic Battlefield. “Usually, we look at a weather map as a two-dimensional surface describing how cold and hot fronts revolve around high and low pressure areas but weather is three-dimensional and deserves a sculptural interpretation,” he said. “So we have transformed the meteorological symbols into building parts of which we can assemble different scenarios.”

For information about the exhibit, visit


Easy, breezy, beautiful: Sara Cwynar’s ’Covergirl,’ Document Journal

Posted 10/24/19


In Ancient Egypt, color was considered an essential part of an item or person’s nature—so much so, that the Egyptian word “iwen” was used interchangeably to mean appearance, character, or being. Through the symbolic application of color, they imbued their art, clothing, and jewelry with a deeper layer of meaning that could be interpreted according to the object’s hue. While the evolution of these systems varies among different cultures and time periods, the widespread use of color as nonverbal social code helped cement the legacy of dye and other colorants as one of the most highly valued trade goods in the ancient world.

Canadian-born artist Sara Cwynar investigates the relationship between color, cosmetics, and social capital in her 16mm short film Covergirl (2018). Currently on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the film mixes footage shot within the artist’s studio and in an undisclosed makeup factory, punctuated with shots of flowers, red lips, and dripping colorants. Images accumulate and dissolve, producing a peculiar flattening of signal power; as with her representative works, Cwynar’s expert manipulation of pop culture imagery serves to collapse the distance between cultures old and new, high and low, unfamiliar and cliché.

The focus of Covergirl alternates between the factory floor and studio footage of Cwynar’s friend and longtime muse, Tracy. In a 2018 interview with Aperture, Cwynar remarks that she picked Tracy as a sitter because “she poses kind of ironically, with the knowledge of a history of representations of women in mind.” We watch as she carefully applies lipstick, shifts in glossy red shoes, reclines on the couch like an odalisque. Yet even as she performs the gestures of feminine deference, there is a sense of barely contained subterfuge: her image courts the gaze, while her confrontational glance condemns it.

All the while, the narrator’s voice—a combination of the artist’s plus male and female voice actors—maintains a staccato quality even as it speaks over itself. The auditory overlap mimics the symbolic density of Cwynar’s visual landscape, juxtaposing the aesthetic of consumerism with the contributions of dominant cultural theorists as quotes from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Frantz Fanon, Henri Matisse, David Batchelor, Kathy Peiss, and Susan Stewart comingle with the artist’s wry observations about everything from the ontological perception of color—“the essential thing about private experience is really not that each person experiences her own color, but that nobody knows whether other people have [this or] something else”—to its complicated relationship with social status—“The taste for color costs many sacrifices.”

Before the advent of synthetic dyes, the market value of a color was determined by the difficulty of its production. To harvest Tyrian purple, marine snails were boiled for days in giant vats to produce a single kilo of the famed hue, with thousands of shells and countless hours of labor required to color even the trim of a single garment. This turned purple-dyed textiles into elite status symbols ruled by sumptuary laws, and by the fourth century AD, Tyrian purple was so closely regulated in Rome that the emperor was the only person permitted to wear it.

Though purple came to be seen as a symbol of elite status—it would clothe many a king, noble, priest, and magistrate—the use of color as a class signifier extends far beyond the singular shade. As Philip Ball describes it, “Medieval and Renaissance cultures were virtually color-coded hierarchies. Crimson and scarlet garments were for cardinals, bishops, popes, and monarchs, echoing the ruby-purple of the emperor’s robes in classical Rome. Clothing displaying other rich colors was a mark of wealth; black in particular came to signify the conspicuous consumption of the affluent merchants, who could afford cloth dyed in several expensive dyes until it took on this somber shade.”

The advent of new dyes marked a major transformation in value, and black—notoriously expensive to produce throughout the 16th century—suddenly became accessible to the masses. By the 19th century, it had been adopted as a standard uniform color for service professions, including the shopgirls who staffed retail shop floors, fully entering into the cultural mainstream with the introduction of Chanel’s little black dress in 1926 (in The Atlantic, Shelley Puhak describes how shopgirl style was later co-opted by the upper classes as a symbol of modern ease, bringing the color’s evolving class associations full circle.)

Not limited to the textile trade, the use of color to denote class differences is a common feature of many ancient cosmetic traditions. In 3000 B.C. China, men and women stained their fingernails with substances like gum arabic, gelatin, beeswax, and egg to produce a class-based color code, with only Chou dynasty royals permitted to wear gold and silver (while subsequent royals could wear black or red, the lower classes were, predictably, forbidden from coloring their nails at all.) When pale skin came to be seen as a marker of aristocratic status, white powder and lead paint were used to mimic the look of one who could afford leisure time indoors. In the 18th century, women would bleed themselves to induce a white-ish cast, whereas society women in Elizabethan England took to wearing egg whites on their faces in pursuit of a paler complexion.

Though we may not bathe in milk like Cleopatra, today’s women still manipulate our natural skin tone with chemicals to attain an even, plump, and poreless complexion—which constitutes a class signifier in and of itself, as Amanda Mull described in The Atlantic. Studies show that the average woman uses between nine and 15 personal care products per day, and with the typical product containing anything from 15-50 ingredients, researchers have estimated that with the combined use of cosmetics and perfumes, women place around 515 individual chemicals on their skin each day. The intersection of color and class association is also informed by a racist history that pervades the language of cosmetics advertising. (For example, even the most innocuous moisturizers claim to affect a brighter—and lighter—complexion; meanwhile, skin bleaching products retain a global market despite toxic or unknown safety profiles.)

“Most of our information on makeup comes from a hostile tradition, written by men regarding women,” states Cwynar, over footage of cosmetics being automatically dispensed and packaged on an assembly line. The mechanized production and distribution of makeup products calls to mind the manner in which beauty standards are socially disseminated throughout a culture. Deemed “the noblest of the senses,” the role of vision is especially dominant in Western thought; this makes it easy to forget the brunt of societal forces involved in fostering the desire for beauty, which is in many ways commensurate with other forms of success and social status. As Cwynar puts it, “In order to achieve [that success], whether it be mental, physical, financial, or social, one has to be looked at by everyone with whom one comes into contact.”

Covergirl is part of Sara Cwynar’s exhibition Gilded Age, on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut through November 10th.