Scotiabank Photography Award 2011 Winner Exhibition

Proposals from the Edge

With the exception of a handful of architectural exteriors dating from the early 1970s Lynne Cohen’s art has largely been confined to investigating the interiors of domestic, industrial, leisure, and educational institutions. Given our insatiable desire for variety, one may ask how such narrowly circumscribed, seemingly dry subject matter can prove to be so unfailingly pointed, wry and illuminating? Her cool, deliberate, beautiful, and intriguing images, precisely executed, and infused with uninflected light, reveal a great deal about the scope and limitations of our abilities to control chaos and make sense of the external world. They confront the contradictions and ambiguities of this often ludicrous and sometimes poignant visual drama that unfolds behind closed doors.

Typically Cohen’s pictures prompt incredulous viewers to ask “Where did she find these places?” to which it is at first tempting to say: Look around you. This, however, is unfair. The interiors Cohen photographs are for all their apparent ordinariness rigorously researched.

While the “Where?” question is interesting, “Why do these places appear as they do?” is better. Cohen’s formal image-making strategy is to present the evidence of what lies in front of her lens in an open, clear and transparent form, an expository style that does not assume to clarify anything. She does not pronounce, rather suggests and proposes. We are asked to consider the conventions and codes governing the ordering of the places where we live and work.

If her early work introduces us to the idea of the interior as an index to a domestic and institutional collective unconscious, the later work invites us to think about the slippage between boundaries in the look of spas and laboratories, domestic interiors and police schools.

In a sleight of Duchampian reversal, she alludes to the art of peers whose work she admires: Artschwageresque attention is paid to material surfaces in home decoration showrooms, Flavinesque light fixtures appear underwater in swimming pools, Marden-like blocks of colour decorate the partition walls in a conference center and more than a few interiors look like Thomas Demand stagings.

Absence and presence have played an increasingly important and complex role in Cohen’s work and she has recently focused more often on single objects: an awkwardly, perhaps even nonsensically, designed door, a Madame Récamier-like couch. While the juxtaposition of an empty easel in front of a plush red curtain with an air conditioning unit might solicit a knowing smile, the larger discourse contained in the picture touches on the ambiguous relationship between art and everyday reality and how the two worlds shape one another. Cohen takes on the notion of iconography and props, even the act of art making itself. The easel is empty but surrounded by the elements of painting: colour texture, division of the picture plane.

In their insistence on contiguity and the interstitial, Cohen’s work take the art of photography to a new place. It has earned a distinguished place in the history of art and photography as well as contemporary art practice.

Ann Thomas
Curator of Photographs Collection
National Gallery of Canada

Organized by the Scotiabank Photography Award

Barr Gilmore, Creative Director