Arthur Cohenby Robert C. Morgan
Jack the Pelican, September 12 – October 12, 2008
Arthur Cohen is a persistently dedicated painter, the proverbial painter’s painter. His first important works were of Italian Baroque cathedrals in Rome. Although painted during the early seventies during the height of New Realism and eventually selected for the Whitney Biennial in 1973, Cohen’s paintings were never quite fashionable. They were neither slick copies of neatly cropped photographs nor “hyper” in their technical display. Their formal attributes were somewhat sketchy, over-indulgent (with actual moldings built on to the frames), and operated as an expressionist ploy for his conflicted relationship with extravagant monuments dedicated to Roman Catholicism. On a more distant formal level, Cohen’s paintings provided a clear and necessary means toward discovering the gesture as a constructive component in painting architectonic shapes. By the late seventies he had progressed away from any direct form of representation toward a more personal style of gestural expressionism, mottled in arrays of bright color. Given his propensity for the gesture, this led to a series of formidable works on shaped canvases that continued for more than a decade. One afternoon after a copious studio visit from the painter Al Held, Cohen decided to move in a new direction that eventually gave way to paintings in which the artist’s name became the source of the composition. At this junction, it seemed that the artist’s career was equivocating between abstraction and realism with a small “r”.
The current exhibition at Jack the Pelican is a kind of self-imposed, if not self-improvised realism. Cohen is painting himself in various jump suits—made from synthetic materials—and fashionable boxing boots. In addition, he employs a knotted rope as a kind of structure on which he advances upward like Sisyphus, yet going nowhere in particular. He presents himself as a youthful adult at play, as an athlete, but realizes this is clearly not his fate—yet he must dress the part and somehow present the veneer of being indelible, that is, beyond aging. At the same time, Cohen wants us to believe that in spite of the signifying (self) image, his paintings are really about painting. They are definitely large-scale, painted in bright colors in dramatic light. In addition, he has painted a parallel series of companion works in which his alter ego—a Korean Buddhist monk whom he befriended in recent years—climbs the rope with a similar punishing gusto. The result of these dual portraits is magnificent in its sheer absurdity.
Cohen’s titles tend toward the ironical, such as “Mr. Universe” (2007), in which the artist is poised in his blue athletic outfit clinging to a knotted rope, or “Here’s Looking at You” (2007), where he balances himself with one hand on the rope and another with a champagne glass toasting the viewer, simulating a reflexive vanitas painting. In the “Monk” paintings, the titled are less ironical and more deadpan. For example, “Monk with Fan” (2007), “Monk with Glass Mug” (2007), and “Monk with Blank Paper” (2008) describe exactly what we see, except for the fact that the subject is also balanced on the climbing rope, sometimes facing the viewer, and other times facing away. In general, these dramatic, life-size paintings have a kind of enticing weirdness. More than enticing, they pull the viewer into the realm of the absurd, the existential precariousness, not only of aging but also of maintaining one’s balance in the process. Cohen sees these paintings as evidence of “heroic self-intervention” in which he paints himself and his persona from the position of distance. The alienation effect—to cite Bertolt Brecht—is also there, given that we identify less with the characters than with their predicament, suspended somewhere between ground and ceiling, more conditioned by gravity than any possibility of transcendence.