Three years ago, Vancouver-born Sara Cwynar, 31, was holed up in her parents’ Ottawa basement, surrounded by an impossible amount of stuff—hair curlers and rubber dish gloves; Boggle dice and dominoes; blush-pink clothesline pins and a first-gen iPod—all of it grabbed from flea markets, Brooklyn sidewalks and that very basement. Cwynar no longer had a job: she’d quit her full- time gig as a graphic designer at the New York Times because it gobbled any energy she had for her own art. She didn’t yet have a new U.S. visa. But she did have scanned archival prints of flower-arranging techniques, sourced from the New York Public Library: she had this stuff and she thought she might have an idea.
“I get excited about beautiful objects that are so specifically the style of a certain period, but have become useless over time,” Cwynar says. “And I’ve always been excited about how you can make a new thing out of old things that no longer mean what they used to.” For the series Contemporary Floral Arrangements (2014), she placed giant replicas of those archival prints on the floor and meticulously layered objects on top, so they transformed into blooms, pistils and stems when photographed from a nine-foot height. (Cwynar uses a very big rig.) In Corinthian Column (Plastic Cups) (2014), Greek ruins are fashioned from plastic cups, then photographed and printed in large sections, the image held together with washi tape.
History, aesthetics, photography and kitsch collide in Cwynar’s art, where everything from landscapes to still lifes are reimagined and made newly relevant—the mundane elevated through careful attention to detail. In June, she snagged Art Basel’s coveted Baloise Art Prize (plus its $40,000 purse). The judges praised Cwynar’s exploration of how images are constructed and the way the personal and the feminist both come into play.
Having finished her MFA at Yale (and landing that visa), Cwynar now works at a studio in Gowanus, an industrial Brooklyn neighbourhood full of the discarded ephemera she shapes into art. She’s shown solo and in groups across the U.S. and Europe, and she’s started experimenting with video. But success doesn’t mean abandoning the rough-hewn nature of her art. “I’m not trained as a photographer. My photos have mistakes, but cleaning them up makes them boring,” Cwynar says. “I like when you can see the human hand.”
Sascha Braunig—on getting away from it all
A woman’s twisted torso fills the frame of Sascha Braunig’s painting Warm Leatherette (2015). She’s both part of and emerging from a neon chartreuse banquette, her well-manicured hands gripping a pair of mallet-like tools that, pressed to her flesh, warp her body further.
It’s not a self-portrait, exactly: Braunig builds a clay model for reference, but she does concede that part of her own identity has sprung from the way women have been depicted in visual culture. “There’s so much weight and pressure—historical, social—on the female figure,” she says. “I wanted this [woman] to look like she was applying force to her own body, so the distortion is self-inflicted instead of coming from outside.” Critics and collectors alike have dropped jaws (and emptied wallets) over Braunig’s kaleidoscopically coloured work: look once, and the picture is all trippy, hypnotic surrealism; look again, and it nods to the finely rendered details of baroque style. Step back, and it becomes clear that in Braunig’s art, ornamentation is armour and women take control.
But to make that art, the 33-year-old from tiny Qualicum Beach, B.C., first had to dispense with Manhattan, where she’d moved in 2001 to attend Cooper Union, a highly competitive arts college. “I was having the typical struggles of someone out of school, trying to cobble together money from a bunch of jobs, not getting to my own work,” Braunig says. “I met someone who lives in Portland, Maine, and used that as an escape route.” Affordability turned into time, which Braunig then turned into “six years really figuring out what my work was about, without too many competing influences. That’s something I’d recommend to any artist.”
Of course, Braunig still gets out plenty: this past summer alone, she was in western Norway for a solo exhibition; in Mallorca, Spain, for an August residency; and then back to Manhattan on a year-long grant. “I’m excited to return, reconnect with people and see so many paintings,” Braunig says. “But I don’t want to get too distracted here.”
Davida Nemeroff—on creating her own art community
In 2009, a degree from Columbia University in hand, Montreal’s Davida Nemeroff left New York City—she had few prospects and no cash—and landed in L.A., where a friend needed her to gallery-sit. It was a lonely period: the city was huge, her classmates were back east and there wasn’t much of a bar scene to haunt.
Then Nemeroff drove past a strip mall and saw potential. “I was feeling this dystopian loss of community, I was staying up late, and I thought this could be somewhere to give artists opportunities,” she says. The cool, progressive galleries that revitalized Chinatown had fled west for Culver City, and Nemeroff wanted to carve out a space for status quo–shaking installations and punk-rock female-positive concepts. So she launched Night Gallery, which was open from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., permitted smoking and showed provocative work from passionate artists.
In the intervening six years, Nemeroff, 35, moved Night Gallery into a larger space and took on a partner, art dealer Mieke Marple. “It helps to have someone to learn from and freak out on and celebrate with,” she says. Night Gallery even has daytime hours now. But the party isn’t over—it’s just begun.
Adrianne Rubenstein—on finding hustle in heartbreak
After finishing her M.F.A. at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2011, Adrianne Rubenstein did something she now recognizes was very dumb: she followed the guy who’d just dumped her to New York. “I was totally delirious, and he had no intention of seeing me,” she recalls. “So when I arrived, I had to pretend I was there for a reason, and I threw myself into landing a job.”
The dumb thing, it turns out, had a major payoff. First, Rubenstein, 33, became associate director of the James Fuentes Gallery, in part by impressing the director with her willingness to work for free—and also scrub mould from the gallery’s basement. (“I was fearless,” the Montreal native says. “And clueless.”) She parlayed that experience into a director position at Canada gallery—the name has nothing to do with heritage or focus; the owners just liked the curve of our country’s letters—where she connects collectors with artists and manages sales. She also serves as a freelance curator on both coasts, and this fall she is putting together an exhibition of 25 young artists she admires at Venus Over Los Angeles, an experimental gallery built from a converted warehouse.
Then there’s her own art. Each of Rubenstein’s vivid, expressionist paintings begins with what she calls “an intense story”—Kitchen Counter Conversation (2016), for example, is a riot of green, red and blue that transports Rubenstein back to her childhood, chatting with her mother and sister over heaps of fruit and veg brought to them by her grandfather, who worked in produce distribution. “He’d drive around giving away broccoli to everyone he knew,” she says. In September, the painting appeared at Rubenstein’s solo exhibition in L.A.
The work doesn’t leave Rubenstein with much free time: she spends five days a week at the gallery, travels one week out of the month, visits artists she’d like to show, and paints in her studio at night. “I can’t say no to any opportunity. I’m like a puppy dog falling over myself excited,” she says. “But this is where I want to be.”
Tara Downs—on giving good ideas a second chance
In her five years as a gallerist, Tara Downs has shown a psychic’s eye for what’s to come. She set up shop on an industrial strip in west Toronto that was half-abandoned when she got there but soon became packed with exhibition spaces, book publishers and the recording studio for Drake’s first album. Downs, 30, and her partners focused on international artists who were locally underrepresented but went on to show at Art Basel Miami and London’s Frieze. She cultivated relationships with collectors who wanted to know how an artist’s work would develop. Her gallery was even called Tomorrow.
But when the rent got too high and her time too stretched, Downs decamped for a gallery job in Berlin. “In leaving, I realized how special Tomorrow was, and I wanted to give it a second life,” she says. So in 2014, she re-established the gallery on New York’s Lower East Side, where its mandate—showcase underrepresented non-locals—remains the same (which means the artists can now come from Canada). “It’s refreshing to bring in talents like Hanna Hur and Sojourner Truth Parsons,” Downs says. “It’s inverting Tomorrow’s own logic.”