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Lynne Cohen’s Influence Felt in Aimia Prize Shortlist

Four artists—including one Canadian—were shortlisted this morning for the Aimia | AGO Photography Prize.

Chicago-based Canadian David Hartt, LA-based Israeli Elad Lassry, South African Nandipha Mntambo, and American Lisa Oppenheim are vying for the $50,000 first prize, which is decided by public vote.

For Hartt, the prize marks a homecoming—as well as an opportunity to reflect upon the legacy of late Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen, who influenced Hartt during his undergrad at the University of Ottawa in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“One reason I came to the States originally was … Lynne had done a visiting artist year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and when I was thinking about applying to grad schools… I asked her what her thoughts were,” the 47-year-old Hartt tells Canadian Art. “She strongly recommended I apply to SAIC. And honestly, it was the only school I applied to!”

Luckily, Hartt got in, and continued living in the states after completing his SAIC MFA in 1994. “The whole reason I’m here is because of Lynne’s recommendation,” he says.

Cohen’s influence didn’t just apply to Hartt’s educational trajectory, but to his artistic practice. Like Cohen, Hartt uses photography to inquire into the implications of the built environment.

But where Cohen photographed interiors and architectural spaces in a way that turned them into haunting, otherworldly everyplaces, Hartt has become known for investigations of space that relate to identity and specificity.

For instance, Hartt’s exhibition “Stray Light”—which recently wrapped up at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and has also been shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago—documents the Johnson Publishing Company Headquarters in Chicago, home to publications such as Ebony and Jet. And Hartt’s show “The Republic” at New York’s David Nolan Gallery earlier this year used Greek urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis’s sketches for Athens and Detroit as its point of departure.

“I very much look at her [Cohen’s] work as a seminal and clear kind of precedent to the way that I’ve formulated my practice and areas of inquiry,” Hartt says. “But I think at this point there’s been creative differentiation,”—particularly when dealing with the issue of “typologies” of space versus “specificity,” he notes.

If Canadians are not yet familiar with Hartt’s work, they will be soon. His art will be included in the Aimia | AGO exhibition opening September 3, and it will also be in the Canadian Biennial opening at the National Gallery of Canada on October 17.

“To go back [to Canada] and have work represented in such a high-profile way is really wonderful and exhilarating,” says Hartt, who was born and grew up in Montreal and still has family there and in Toronto. “I’m incredibly honoured.”

Hartt will also be in Whitehorse later this year to shoot a film that references Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North as well as Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. (Shooting for the Chekhov-related segments wrapped just weeks ago in Russia.) That film will debut in Los Angeles in January. And he is working on a film with Vancouver’s Or Gallery that marries the story of the climate-change-threatened islands of Tuvalu with that of Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, once the designer of the tallest concrete residential towers in the world.

It’s all much more activity than Hartt could have envisioned for himself even just a few years ago.

“There was a 10-year gap in my career,” Hartt notes. “In 1998, I decided to stop [making art] for a number of reasons, and I didn’t really start exhibiting again until 2008, or making art until 2006.”

When Hartt did start exhibiting again, he received support from Cohen in the form of correspondence and notes. “I was hoping to see her again,” he says, particularly since she herself was shortlisted for the same prize in 2009. Instead, like many others in the Canadian art scene, Hartt can only remember her talent and influence.

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