Trained in computer programming, the artist John Houck examines questions of human perception and memory through the use of technologies that range from digital photography to software coding. Houck’s recent work, for example, involves still lifes composed of formative objects from his youth that he photographs, rearranges, and reshoots. Images of these iterations are subsequently layered to create what Houck calls “aggregate photographs”—emblems of the manner in which imagination and recollection alter and distort our views of our past lives.
Read John’s response to Sara Cwynar: Apple Red/Grass Green/Sky Blue, on view at ICA LA Feb 5 - May 29, 2022.
When I was invited to give this talk I asked how long the talk should be and I was told it should be about an hour. I immediately felt a bit panicked. After nearly two years of isolation, do I still have what it takes to focus? Not only has the pandemic been exceedingly difficult, but becoming a parent requires a scattered sort of vigilance, that along with the world of social media has left me feeling a bit frazzled. So much of our discourse is now a series of “hot takes.” I’ve listened to entire podcasts of people reacting to others peoples reactions on complex subjects they know little about. So while I had some misgivings about the length of this talk, it was also encouraging to realize there is still a place for deeper forms of discussion and attention. I hope this talk opens the door to a deeper form of attention, at least a bit.
Beyond all the projections about technology, I think a difficult aspect of the current moment is that there are few chances to get out of my own mind. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says:
“Because in your mind, you’re mad. But in conversation you have the chance of not being. Your mind by itself is full of unmediated anxieties and conflicts. In conversation things can be metabolized and digested through somebody else—I say something to you and you can give it back to me in different forms—whereas you’ll notice that your own mind is very often extremely repetitive. It is very difficult to surprise oneself in one’s own mind.”
I’m grateful for this talk and how it focused me on Sara’s work for the last several weeks and allowed me to have a conversation with it on the page and now with all of you.
I first became aware of Sara Cwynar around 2013 when I was having a coffee with my friend Sonel and talking about publishing a book with her. Sonel had an imprint at the time called Blonde Art Books and she showed me an early copy of Sara’s book that she was publishing; it was called Kitsch Encyclopedia.
Who was this artist with such a keen sense of design and literature? The physical quality of the book; the pale pink paper and the small spreads within the larger book were striking. Conceptually, a major organizing principle for the book is Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch, in which he says kitsch is the familiar images we look at in order to ignore all that is not aesthetically appealing about life. This is one of the keys to Sara’s work.
In an interview about the process of creating Glass Life, Sara says, “I made maps in the studio of the main themes, then divided those into sections such as truth, beauty, shopping, or surveillance capitalism.” I have taken a similar approach to this talk and it will be divided into three main themes:
My grid, or foundation as an artist, began with my move to LA for graduate school. I started graduate school in the Architecture department at UCLA. Being new to Los Angeles, one of the greatest things I found in my first few months was the Hammer Museum. Visiting the museum and attending artist lectures at the Hammer changed everything for me. I became enamored with the way artists created their own language, symbolic systems, and worlds. There was a freedom and intellectual range in the art world that I found exhilarating after my experience in architecture. By my second quarter, Jim Welling was kind enough to let me take one of his photo classes and that was the turning point for me.
Having studied architecture undergrad and working as a software engineer for five years prior to graduate school, the first thing that struck me about the art department was the lack of technical training and the suspicion of craft. I remember asking a fellow student why is there such a disdain for craft in this department and she generously pointed me to the Frankfurt School and a cache of other theoretical texts. I soon realized craft was alive in the art department, but it was largely in the form of theoretical readings and philosophical frameworks for art. I earnestly studied these texts and eventually attended the Whitney Independent Study Program, a zenith of theoretical based practice. When I watch Sara’s films the echo of these texts reverberates as the soundtrack to her work.
I bring up my background here to illustrate the ground from which my thinking emerges, what I’m pushing off of when I make work. It’s like what Rosalind Krauss says in her book Under Blue Cup, “The white cube is the base we touch with our eyes, the way the edge of the pool is the surface against which we kick in order to propel ourselves back through the water.” The grid is the formal ground, and it is largely a rational one. Krauss characterizes the grid by saying, “Nobody invented the grid, there are grids in cave painting—it’s simply a way of rationalizing the deployment of images on a plain surface.
For me the grid is the ghost of my former careers in software and architecture. The grid allows rationality into the space of art. In Sara’s work, particularly Glass Life, the grid is a critical element. An element that I imagine, at the minimum, has something to do with her former work as a graphic designer.
One of the main contributions of the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, was his concept of the “holding environment”. Winnicott thought that the true self could only take shape when there was a sufficient “holding environment.” In the case of a therapist, a “holding environment” would be in the most basic sense, a therapist that is reliable and consistent. It can seem contradictory at first, but there needs to be a reliable environment and calm to create the conditions for play and creativity. Much like the way feelings of boredom are often the step immediately proceeding periods of creativity. The grid in Sara’s work acts as a holding environment for her arrangement of images and videos. The consistent and reliable grid in Glass Life makes the playfulness of her constellations of images even more apparent.
Winnicott also wrote that the child could only find their true self when they were allowed to be alone in the presence of the caretaker. If we can think of the grid as the caretaker, then in Glass Life, there are moments when the grid is quiet and just beyond perception. It formally organizes the film, but doesn’t get in the way. The images and videos work within the grid, but it isn’t so rigid as one might see in the world of design or architecture. At one point, the CG swimmer breaks with the grid and floats about the screen. The music reflects this shift as well; no longer is the heavily metered music playing, but a more lilting quality is heard as the swimmer breaks with the grid and floats about.
The Grid in Glass Life also functions temporally, in addition to spatially. In Krauss’ seminal essay Grids, 1979, she says:
“There are two ways in which the grid functions to declare the modernity of modern art. One is spatial; the other is temporal. In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.”
That idea of the “lateral spread” on a single surface is an impression I often have when experiencing Sara’s work. The images appear to scroll by and slide across the screen, but rather than a single surface, there is a multitude of depths. Grids upon grids, that feel on the verge of creating a moire pattern. In my high school, there were still a few microfiche machines in the library and I remember marveling at navigating the dense surfaces and how they could be traversed in any direction. I would often stack multiple slides and navigate them, feeling like it was some sort of hyperspace. In Glass Life the imagery scrolls by on a conveyor belt. Sometimes the conveyor belt is revealed in wider shots. The film at times has the quality of a factory tour.
Early in the pandemic my family watched a lot of Mr Rogers. It wasn’t a show that I watched growing up, but I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed the factory tours Mr Rogers would take. This was just before globalization had started and he tours a number of US factories that are no longer in existence. In Sara’s work, the feeling that you are witnessing or even a part of the production immerses you in her work in a compelling way. There isn’t an overt critique of image production and desire, but you know you are a part of it, and this feeling of being embedded in the production of desire raises many questions in the viewer. This type of critique works when the pressure is calibrated, like stretching a muscle, if you push too far the muscle becomes tighter, don’t push enough, and nothing changes.
I started a body of work many years ago, called “A History of Graph Paper.” I began by researching the rise of commercially available graph paper and kept coming upon a polymath named Luke Howard who is credited with giving the Latin names to different cloud formations around 1803. Goethe was a fan of Luke Howard and he attempted to commission German painter Caspar David Friedrich to make paintings of cloud studies based on Howard’s system. Friedrich declined. However, John Constable would make a great number of cloud paintings based on his system and John Ruskin wrote much art criticism using Howard’s classification system. Howard made a number of paintings of clouds and often used graph paper to see the patterns in meteorology. This image of amorphous clouds, once thought too variable to name, painted over gridded paper, is also an image that comes to mind when thinking of Sara’s work.
The categorization of clouds takes away some of the magic and infinite variety of the atmosphere. The cloud of images, text, and video is where Sara counters the staid quality of the grid and of design more generally. Boris Groys in his essay, “On Art Activism,” says of design,
“The aim of design is to change reality, the status quo – to improve reality, to make it more attractive, better to use. Art seems to accept reality, the status quo, as it is. But art accepts the status quo as dysfunctional, as already failed, from the revolutionary or even postrevolutionary perspective. Modern and contemporary art wants to make things not better but worse, and not relatively worse, but radically worse – to make dysfunctional things out of functional things, to betray expectations, to demonstrate the invisible presence of death where we tend to see only life.”
Materially, Sara shows the rough edges of things. Backgrounds have wrinkles in them, pictures appear to be cut out by hand, and the unbreakable Melamine tableware shatters. In Red Film, Sara is upside down and the blood is rushing to her head. In Glass Life the pictures scroll by, but in an analog fashion and the plexi support layers for the images show scratches and smudges on them. Byung-Chul Han in his book Saving Beauty says,
“The smooth is the signature of the present time. It connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones and Brazilian waxing. Why do we today find what is smooth beautiful? Beyond its aesthetic effect, it reflects a general social imperative. It embodies today’s society of positivity. What is smooth does not injure. Nor does it offer any resistance. It is looking for Likes.”
Han goes onto say the smoothness of contemporary art allows it to work in concert with neoliberal capitalism and denies Otherness. Inherent in beauty used to be a kind of shock, but now it’s largely about pleasure and emptied out. The audio in Sara’s films always strikes me as beguiling and far from being smooth. The narrator mispronounces words on occasion. Like a storm front of clouds, I latch onto a phrase and almost the instant I start to comprehend it another statement begins and overlaps both the prior statement and my intellectual reckoning with it. The audio in the films flickers in my consciousness and the first time I saw all of her work at ICA LA I kept saying in my head, “I say that, to say this.” But I also, found myself repeating “we have to watch ourselves, become our selves, in order to be ourselves, over and over again”. The indirection of the text makes the repeated moments standout.
Sara also uses humor to unsettle and unveil visual tropes. In Rose Gold, she polishes with a rag a large print of one of her rose photos, adding comic relief and alluding to gendered cleaning commercials. In Soft Film, she is sometimes in a chair behind a monstera palermo leaf, playing with Matisse’s arrangement of female subjects and plant life. She also poses in the classical reclining nude pose, but rather than settling into it, she shifts about, and at other times is covered with fabrics.
The film works remind me of a James Turrell lecture I saw at LACMA around 2008. He spoke about flying small aircraft, and how when you loose site of the horizon, spacial disorientation can result. The pilot no longer know’s what is up or down and the flight instruments become the only way to know. This explained everything to me about what a Turrell skyspace is. In Sara’s work, rather the expansive sky, we are in a cloud of visuals and text. Sometimes when observing Sara’s photos up close or her videos I feel like I’m loosing site of the ground and floating in that cloud of images and video. It also makes me think of a Wittgenstein aphorism I still puzzle over:
“You can’t build clouds. And that’s why the future you dream of never comes true.”
I spent a month in Italy five years ago and when I came back I had a new found interest in hands. All of those paintings in which the hand is a stand-in for God, or acts of God, started to get to me. When I came back from Italy, I figured out how to make casts of my own hands and made an entire body of photos with the resultant sculptures. In watching Sara’s films it occurred to me, for the first time, that a large part of my day is spent using my hands to arrange things. Her work also involves arranging a lot of objects and pictures. Showing her hands doing this arranging in the work is a nod to the artist and the labor involved in constructing her photos and films. I would argue, that much like ancient Greek oratory tradition, the hand gestures are as important as what is being said.
One of my favorite books is called Hands: What We Do with Them - and Why, by Darian Leader. I discovered this book while on that trip to Italy and it magnified my interest in the depiction of hands. A few relevant quotes from the book:
“In zombie and Frankenstein movies, the creatures walk with hands held out in front of them, not to suggest difficulties in vision, but on the contrary, pure purpose.”
“In his later years, Jacques Lacan introduced knot theory into psychoanalysis, arguing that it provided the most rigorous model available to map the human psyche. He would carry string around with him in his pockets, knotting and unknotting at all places and times, from his consulting room to his public seminar to the cafes and restaurants he frequented. We might guess here that beyond the theoretical advantage of knot theory, Lacan was interested in the actual practice of knotting, and it was this that kept his hands busy for so many hours.”
“The hand is referred to more than any other body part in the Bible, and appears in the Old Testament more than 2000 times. In early Christianity, the deity is often pictured as a massive hand emerging from the clouds, and the tablets of the law may originally have been hand-shaped, with five commandments inscribed on each.”
Hands figure prominently in Sara’s film works. The hands bring in the element of tactility. They also make me think of painting and a quote by Siri Hustvedt in her book Mysteries of the Rectangle,
“Touch lies at the heart of all human life. It is our first experience of another person, and the physicality of Chardin’s stroke is evocative of both caress and touches of reassurance. I am certain that these strokes made by a paintbrush lie at the bottom of Proust’s comment that in Chardin one feels the affection a tablecloth has for a table.”
As someone who also constructs photos rather than taking them I see the prominence of tactility as a way to signal the constructedness of the picture and films. To go back to Winnicott’s notion of the Holding Environment and Hustvedt’s quote, touch is the first form of communication that we experience when we are born. Even Artistotle recognized that without sight or hearing, there could be life, but without touch, death would follow (at least in early life). In Sara’s films, the hands add a universal language of touch that speaks to caring, while simultaneously referencing the way our hands are always active; scrolling, pinching, typing, and caressing our digital devices. I also think of the clocks all set to 8:20 in Rose Gold, and the hands setting the hands of the clock. An outmoded gesture, but one still familiar.
The jewelry boxes featured in Soft Film have an incredible tactile quality and such a specific way of opening and closing. Nicholson Baker’s book, The Mezzanine, is an entire novel about about a man returning from lunch and riding the escalator back up to his office. Nicholson makes extensive use of footnotes to explore the inner thoughts of the man and some of the footnotes even have their own footnotes. The book explores both the wonders and banality of everyday consumer items, in dazzling detail. One passage in particular comes to mind:
“At first the Papa Gino’s bag was stiff, but very soon my walking softened the paper a little, although I never got it to the state of utter silence and flannel softness that a bag will attain when you carry it around all day, its handheld curl so finely wrinkled and formed to your fingers by the time you get home that you hesitate to unroll it.”
Many of the objects in Sara’s work are second hand objects that have a similar kind of evidence of their history. And one of my favorite acknowledgments of the hand of the artist; the awkward scrolling of the credits at the end of her films. The credits don’t smoothly roll by, but start and stop, and sometimes go in reverse order. I can think of few artists who do as much with hand gestures as Sara does.
To return to Kundera and his book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he states that Kitsch is
“the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”
By this definition, I would say design tends toward kitsch and art is the other side of the coin. The author Zadie Smith also states this idea another way, when she says:
“I like books that don’t give you an easy ride. I like the feeling of discomfort. The sense of being implicated.”
The tension Sara employs between kitsch and art brings about that kind of productive discomfort. Another striking discomfort Sara’s work brings to the fore, is the feeling of being a human in the overwhelming world of the digital.
Toward the end of Glass Life there is a shadow on the sidewalk of a person holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and the other hand looks to be lifted up toward their face, shading their eyes from the bright sun. When I left the exhibition this image kept replaying in my mind. The subtle shading of the plastic wrapped around the flowers is formally beautiful, but also it rhymes with Sara’s Red Rose photograph in its use of the artificially plastic context wrapped around nature. That image brought to mind a quote by the designer of the first programmable computer, Konrad Zuse, in 1935 he said,
“The danger of computers becoming like humans is not as great as the danger of humans becoming like computers.”
As our context and lives become increasingly wrapped by digital technologies and information, Sara’s work shows that it can be navigated and that our humanity can shine through the noise.