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Jonathan Lee: Scott Cohen’s Unfinished Ballad

December 5, 2013

A photographer who understands Nabokov’s assertion that 'imagination is a form of memory,' that as human beings we are forever recreating our own lives.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/scott_cohen_icefish.jpg
Image courtesy of the artist.

By Jonathan Lee

Scott Cohen’s art is saturated with a sense of time lost and time slowed. He began his career by shooting hundreds of hours of video footage on a 16mm Bolex camera. One day, projecting some of that footage onto a wall in his apartment, he started taking photographs of his favorite moments using Polaroid positive / negative film. The resulting pictures, like so much of his work since, brim with a sense of forward momentum whilst at the same time capturing the feel of a memory or dream. Time is compressed. A single image contains multiple other images within it—film frames blurring into one another, the past inserted into the present. Cohen’s work asks us to consider the origins of a given moment and, as he puts it, “to question where we are going as we sail forward in time.”

Cohen’s latest exhibition, curated by Barbara Stehle, is entitled “An Unfinished Ballad.” Some of the most striking photographs on display continue his early habit of dramatizing moments of movement and change. A beautiful monochromatic sky-scene, for example, was photographed on a long exposure lasting a full five minutes. The chosen shutter speed operates to blur and swirl the air, making ghostly paths of moving light visible to the viewer. What we see is some distance from any literal truth—the sky shown will never quite match the sky you or I see through a window—but the picture captures something that a more conventional, representational method of photography would struggle to record: the sense of motion and strangeness in the air; the odd daily beauty of slow-traveling clouds.

The human form is blurred, distorted, full of a mysterious interplay between light and dark; we are asked to bring our imaginations to the piece, to try and see what Cohen sees.

The sky photograph, like many of the images in the new exhibition, portrays the natural world using elements borrowed from that world. It is printed on paper created from the pulp of a Mulberry tree, a species that can withstand hot, arid landscapes but also the polluted air of the world’s biggest cities. Cohen works with platinum and natural pigments. He carefully thumbs beeswax over the surface of many of his prints, giving them a more intimate, emotional feel. It’s a technique that looks back in time to a point before plastics transformed the photography industry—at one stage it was common for negatives to be made from thin paper treated this way—and this sense of glancing back as we encounter the future operates as a recurring motif throughout the exhibition. There are eerily beautiful black-and-white shots of the humbling landscapes Cohen has journeyed across in the last few years: the scorched earth of Africa; the nomadic terrain of northern Mongolia; a coldly alluring Antarctica. There are pictures that offer us blurry, enticing forms which, in their refusal to easily reveal what they are, capture something of the way the human mind works. Cohen is an artist who shows a rare combination of empathy and intelligence. He seems alert to the fact that all of us, all of the time, are looking at things through the gauze of memory and imagination. Instead of cultivating the high precision instants we associate with so much contemporary photography, his work has a romantic subjectivity: it is full of productive uncertainty. He seems to understand Vladimir Nabokov’s assertion that “imagination is a form of memory”—that as human beings we are forever recreating our own lives.

A center-piece of the exhibition is eerily beautiful video footage of Antarctica, projected onto three tall walls. One of the striking things about this footage and the accompanying still photographs of Antarctica is the way they have brought about something new in Cohen’s style: a willingness to recreate in a different way. Icebergs are already abstract. They require far fewer effects to emphasize their other-worldliness. Recognizing this, Cohen chooses not to blur and reshape; he lets the subject’s in-built drama express itself. By contrast, a teasing, intriguing photograph of a hat-wearing indigenous man crouching in the Siberian borderlands has been treated with Cohen’s trademark effects: the human form is blurred, distorted, full of a mysterious interplay between light and dark. We are asked to bring our imaginations to the piece, to try and see what Cohen sees: a man leaning over a hole in a plane of ice, dropping a line into cold water to catch a fish for dinner. The picture is produced in such a way that it retains a privacy; we’d never guess the full story behind it. The icebergs, by contrast, can look after themselves. They remain at a beautiful, inhospitable distance from us, effortlessly reflecting our attempts at interpretation.

In all of Cohen’s work there is travel. He seems drawn towards the journeys, large and small, that make up a life. Alongside portraits of his trips to Africa and Antarctica there is a monochrome shot of a snowy New York street, the viewer’s eye drawn to a lone, dark figure moving through the city. It’s an image Cohen projected against a surface he could manipulate, allowing him to wobble both the street and the person, bending lines and introducing a sense of liquid grace. The effect is both gorgeous and frightening; the woman is both universal and anonymous. The picture has some of the ghoulish beauty of Gerhard Richter’s ‘Woman With Child (Beach),’ or Edvard Munch’s early sketches for ‘The Scream.’

We look at the work he has made in Antarctica—a place so foreign and expansive that it seems to teem with an inexhaustible newness however long we stare at it.

Cohen says his art is, in part, about “the quest for those meeting places—those moments when we experience something whole or complete, or sense the absence of what once was.” He says he’s interested in nostalgia—a word that carries a suggestion of sentimentality that is at first difficult to square with his work. But “nostalgia” has its origins in the Greek words for return (nostos) and for suffering (algos) and there is, in the versions of Cohen’s life he chooses to frame and hang, a sense of the suffering created by an unfulfilled yearning to return. He’s an artist who knows that an absence can often be more vivid than a presence. His work reminds us that all photographs are, to some extent, ways of clinging to the places a photographer has been, the people he or she has met. The work in “An Unfinished Ballad” is unfinished in more than one sense. The images resist the finality of precision—refuse to come easily into focus—and they also keep the journeys Cohen has taken alive in the mind, staving off the sense of an ending.

The work on display in the new show may be less melancholy than the art Cohen has produced in earlier years. Here is a photographer who so often used to focus on nocturnes letting a little more light into his work. This might in part be explained by Cohen’s confessed realization, as he travels through his forties, that “accidents create opportunities.” Whatever happens to you, wherever you end up, there’s always the chance of experiencing something new. We know this as we look at the work he has made in Antarctica—a place so foreign and expansive that it seems to teem with an inexhaustible newness however long we stare at it—and we know it when we watch five short films that also comprise part of “An Unfinished Ballad.” In one of these films, water is shimmering, catching the sun, resembling an organism squirming with life under a microscope. In another, butterflies inscribe letters in the sky. There’s a sense in each piece of something being changed or shaped, of life as a series of narratives unspooling. When human figures are visible in Cohen’s art, they are small moving parts of those stories.

To find out more about Scott Cohen’s work visit www.scottcohen.us. To make an appointment to view his photographs and short films at 155 Mercer Street, Soho, between December 5th and December 20th, email info@bstehle.com.

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