Traces of Red
Greg Cwik on Cover Girl
Brooklyn-based artist Sara Cwynar’s Cover Girl is a shimmering assemblage of images and items, images of items, objects, colors, and shapes, accompanied by a loquacious yet lethargic voiceover that intones indolently on and on until it becomes something like white noise. The film, which played in New York galleries and was featured in Cwynar’s first solo U.S. Museum exhibition, Sara Cwynar: Image Model Muse in Minneapolis in 2019, is a thematic and aesthetic successor to Cwynar's Rose Gold (2017), which played TIFF and had an exhibition at New York’s Foxy Production when Cwynar was barely 30. Both films question the permanence of objects, and the point and effects of materialism; they recall Walter Benjamin in their fascination with the aura of mechanical reproduction, and Susan Sontag in the gestalt of kitsch. As Sontag put it, kitsch “has an affinity” for “clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual decor.” Kitsch is all about surface-level pleasures, man-made things. There’s an obsessive fetishization in the way Cwynar photographs quotidian objects in luscious 16mm, the variegated array of cups and saucers and glassware, the colors supersaturated yet soft, diaphanous, and fleeting as a dream.
Rose Gold establishes the sui generis syntax of Cwynar's style. The affable ambage of the male narrator in Rose Gold has a gentle momentum, his waves of sentences sucking the viewer in like a whirlpool. Cwynar offers a trove of banal items which, through the context given by the droll, monotone voice (often interrupting and overlapping itself), seem important, even epochal. These are artifacts from bygone eras, which hark back to this or that, and which conjure memories. Even the most pointless of products matter in a way. The narrator pontificates on the nature of colors, on plastics, the camera gazing upon minute details that feel somehow profound, rapturous, and sad all at once.
Cwynar herself narrates Cover Girl, and there’s an angelic quality to her voice, a geniality and splendor draped gently over the shots of machinery, liquids filling containers, a bevy of beautifying powders which look like dirt before adorning the faces of humans. Cover Girl seeks out the meaning of the mundane, of material things. It recalls Resnais’s 13-minute short from 1958, Le chant du Styrène. Resnais had been commissioned by French industrial group Pechiney to proclaim the merits of plastic, but his film instead plays as an avant-garde promenade through a modern industrial landscape. Through Resnais’s gaze, plastic becomes beauteous, sublime. Cwynar also probes the surprising beauty and inherent malaise of a factory, one that produces makeup. In her book Kitsch Encyclopedia, Cwynar states, "I refer often to Milan Kundera’s concept of kitsch, which he defines in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as the familiar images we look at in order to ignore all that is not aesthetically appealing about life." She turns conveyor belts, machines spitting out goop, and garish colors into a gorgeous, aching tribute to and vivisection of aesthetics and the materials used to create aesthetics. “Color photography is not bound to be faithful to the natural world,” she says in voiceover. Colors—their meanings, their associations, the artifice they can create and suggest—have been an obsession for Cwynar. She cogitates on the role of color in modernity, in society, its capacity to influence and alter an identity. I may not see blue the same way that Cwynar does, but the color holds certain meanings for both of us—insinuations, associations.
The central image of Cover Girl is a tube of red lipstick kissing a curvaceous pair of lips, making them into something bolder, fuller. It's the marriage of product and person, the two becoming inextricable. Lipstick is a simple mixture of petroleum and castor oil, antioxidants and emollients, spread across the craquelure of the flesh that we so badly want to touch and taste. As Coco Chanel said, "If you’re sad, add more lipstick and attack." Lipstick has, in one form or another, been around for at least 5,000 years, since the Sumerians crushed gemstones for Queen Puabi, and Cleopatra pulverized bugs to extract their carmine. In ancient Egypt, colored lips were a sign of status, worn by both men and women; to color one's face was to flaunt societal superiority. In Greece, prostitutes were obligated, by law, to wear dark lipstick to make their vocation known. The suffragettes used lipstick as a sign of empowerment, and silent film actresses like Clara Bow and Theda Bara made headlines with boldly painted lips. Cwynar's lipstick is a vibrant hue of red, which, she tells us, is the color of passion—blood, rage, violence, lust, a color that conjures images of lovers in rapturous embrace, the ears of a liar, hearts of embers smoldering, a Church Cardinal. With the advent of puritanical Christianity, red lips were seen as a sign of evil, the mark of a harlot, until Queen Elizabeth took the throne and popularized the look. In 1896, Cezanne likened the mixing of colors to mingling a truth with a lie, Cwynar says. Isn't that what makeup does, too? Isn't applying red to your lips—to accentuate, to disguise, to summon an image that the body cannot do alone—a form of lying, a way of altering the inherent truth? (A New York Times article from 1912 advised women to "touch the lips slightly with a lip-stick, but do not make your mouth look like raw beef." Good advice.)
"Could nature be deceiving you?" Cwynar asks. When we put on makeup, are we trying to deceive nature? Or is self-improvement natural? Red: a hotter, "flamier" you, the real you. Lipstick is a commodity, which raises the question: Who owns the way you look? Is using a product manufactured by a corporation giving up one's autonomy, or is it taking control of your own aesthetic? “The world begins as a colorless form,” Cwynar says in voice over, “onto which color is added at a later stage.” It is this world, this blank sprawl of gray, that fascinates Cwynar; it’s the colors with which we mottle our lives, create ourselves, the way we use consumer products to embellish, garnish, glamorize.