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Features / September 10, 2002

No Man’s Land: The Photography of Lynne Cohen

"A little insomnia," Proust remarks, "is a great help in understanding the nature of sleep..." Is there a precise name for this type of reversed line of inquiry?
Spread from the Fall 2002 issue of <em>Canadian Art</em> Spread from the Fall 2002 issue of Canadian Art

“A little insomnia,” Proust remarks, “is a great help in understanding the nature of sleep…” Is there a precise name for this type of reversed line of inquiry? Philosophers resort to it often: Merleau-Ponty, for instance, when he begins a meditation on the nature of language by examining theories of aphasia, the inability to speak. In the visual arts there is the example of Sophie Calle’’s image-and-text work The Blind (1986), in which the artist poses the question what is beauty? —to people who have been blind since birth.

Lynne Cohen is a master of this paradoxical approach. Her photographs of interiors——domestic spaces in her early career, mostly institutional spaces in the last two decades or so——are famous for never depicting the people who inhabit them. “No Man’’s Land,” the title of Cohen’’s recent National Gallery of Canada survey and of the book that accompanies it, makes rather self-conscious reference to this. But people can of course be conspicuous by their absence, and “No Man’’s Land,” by bringing together a large body of work covering 25 years, brought to the foreground the social concerns that have been the constant in Cohen’’s art.

Until now, some of us may have admired these photographs for their formal qualities above all; for Cohen’’s ability to carve the tangible out of light, shade and hue, and for her exquisite sense of framing. Transforming the banal locations Cohen photographs into places that feel so unfamiliar and unique requires an unerring technique for separating detail from structure, imperfection from the ideal: a gift for framing that only the great aesthetes (as well as the most dangerous demagogues, alas) possess. What “No Man’’s Land” has brought into even sharper focus, however, are the emotional, even political dimensions of the work, the waves of disquiet that have been there in Lynne Cohen’’s photographs from the beginning, lapping at the pillars of their perfect constructions.

It is clear now that Cohen’’s priorities are not formal but social and psychological. Her pictures are social studies, meditations on how we organize our private nests and how others design for us the public spaces in which we conduct our lives. As the work matures and its focus shifts from interior design to social engineering, from pictures of living rooms and office-building lobbies to depictions of classrooms, laboratories and military installations——from “we” to “they”——its tone darkens from wry bemusement to anger, even rage. This while formally the pictures grow ever more assured and beautiful. Some of Cohen’’s latest photographs are in colour and it is a tribute to the clarity of her purpose that these ravishing images lose nothing in terms of critical bite.

Many writers have analyzed the affinities Lynne Cohen’’s vision has with that of certain artists of the past. Walker Evans’’ pictures of rooms are an obvious reference, and so are Atget’’s uncannily still street scenes of Paris. Cohen herself has spoken of her early interest in Duchamp and Magritte, and in Pop Art, particularly Richard Artschwager’’s use of synthetic materials and visual distortion.

No Man’’s Land, the book, contains a very substantial interview with the artist, who talks with tremendous wit about issues technical and philosophical, touching on a vast range of topics, from the honeymoon hotels of the Poconos to Brecht and Godard. But there is one glaring absence in the interview: Cohen is not asked to comment on Diane Arbus, even though the parallels between these two photographers are so evident. When Cohen speaks of her ambivalent “approach/avoidance reaction” to some of the eerie places she shoots, one immediately thinks of the fear and fascination her other-side-of-the-tracks subjects aroused in Arbus. Both artists open up to us areas of experience that are normally off-limits to outsiders. Part of the nervous energy of their pictures is due to our understanding what intense negotiations——subtle arguments, no doubt, and perhaps desperate cajoling——must have taken place in the background to make access possible.

Did Arbus “influence” Cohen? Not visibly so. Apart from the correspondence in temperaments the differences are great: in subject matter, of course, and in formal terms like lighting and composition. From the beginning, Cohen’’s images are more symmetrically structured than Arbus’’s, and more evenly lit. They are also less atmospheric.

And yet there are the two photographs that appeared in the Aperture monograph on Arbus published in 1972: Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963 and A lobby in a building, N.Y.C. 1966. These pictures contain no human characters, so they are not typical Arbus, but now, after all this time, we might mistake them for typical Cohen. What did the young Lynne Cohen think of them as she prepared for her first photographic solo show in 1973? They must have seemed to her an omen and a benediction. To the rest of us, this meeting of minds serves as a magical moment in the annals of “intertextuality.”

Studying Arbus at that time must have also confirmed for Cohen the different direction she had decided to take some time before. Instead of an expressionistic, Freudian approach based on anecdote——a “case studies” method, so to speak——she opted for a more abstract and allusive style of argument, focusing not on the individual but on the social; not illustration, but demonstration.

There is an element of installation in her work, Cohen has noted. Not that she photographs altered spaces or stage sets: the venues are genuine, all right, but “I sometimes clean things up a bit,” she admits. Her work has never pretended to be documentary. The photo’s’ titles are anything but specific: Spa, Classroom, Laboratory, Military Installation and so on, without any details about location or context. Neither are dates included in the titles: they have to be tracked down in the table of contents of No Man’’s Land, and in the earlier survey of her work, L’’Endroit du décor (Lost and Found) (1992), they are not mentioned at all. True documentarians are always anxious to prove their bona fides, hence titles like Walker Evans’’s Bedroom, Shrimp Fisherman’’s House, Biloxi, Mississippi, 1945, or Arbus’’s symptom-laden A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970: every word filling in a blank.

But documentable “facts” are not what Cohen is after; her photographs are not reporting. They are meditations on how culture shapes space and hence our lives, on the different systems of control exerted in our society. These covert forces are made manifest in the locations she chooses to photograph: the tyranny of fashion over taste (living rooms, offices, lobbies); of time over vitality (spas); the past over the future (classrooms); scientific knowledge over other kinds of wisdom (laboratories); matter over spirit (military installations).

The theme of control is present in even the earliest pictures. Living Room (1971) has a central sofa facing us and matching pairs of things, one on each side: two pillows, two lamps and so on, all coordinated in the same pattern as the wallpaper. Tremendous pains have been taken to decorate this room. The pillows are supplemented by throw cushions, the lamps by shades, the shades are trimmed with lace, the lace has been ruffled——a million bits of tender care, but for whose benefit? Well, the viewer’’s to begin with, for this ridiculous accumulation of kitsch makes for a very funny picture. It is also a very beautiful picture, beautiful both as image and as insight, in the way the tight framing and shallow space transform the cozy nest into a stage set.

So far so good——good art——and we could stop there, content with the thought: dross can be redeemed by art. But that’’s hardly Lynne Cohen’’s point. As we look at the totality of her oeuvre and pick up on its insistent code of power——Cohen has spelled out in interview her preoccupation with “deception, claustrophobia, manipulation and control”——we understand that the transformation of functional places into stage scenery and (the absent) men and women into merely players is hardly a stab at transcendence. There is no closure in these pictures, just the open question: who wrote the script?

Once that’’s been asked, some of the jolliness drains out of our reading of Living Room. In describing the room I used the words “ridiculous” and “kitsch”——but on what authority? I implied that the room’’s owner lacks taste and individuality——but by whose standards? The problem is not with being unfair or unkind——satire is an essential art, powerful in its own right; once in a while it can even help bring down tyrants.

The problem is how to be lucid in matters of freedom and choice. Lynne Cohen’’s photographs, with their uncanny fusion of the strange and the familiar, are semiological minefields, crammed with mute signifiers, mute because the artist has excluded from the frame those bits of human activity that would cue us to the context, the everyday function of the spaces we see. So how do I name what I see in these pictures, what I feel or understand? And even then, how do I know that the words coming out of my mouth are my own, that I’’m not just parroting received wisdom imposed by the standard scripts of education, convention, culture?

When Roland Barthes died in 1980, having just published Camera Lucida, a book filled with disappointment in photographs and in what they can represent, there were rumours that he had been thinking of writing a novel. One rumour was that it would be a new version of Robinson Crusoe in which the hero wanders around a contemporary city filled with mute signifiers. Who might have been the wandering, wondering stranger: the ghost of Walter Benjamin? Or an extraterrestrial, an amnesiac, a Lynne Cohen? Barthes, who always implied that the fundamental issue of semiology is freedom——language, he says, is “fascistic” because “it forces us to speak”——clearly meant his Crusoe to be the prototype of the free being. He would have relished No Man’’s Land.

At the heart of realism, photographic or otherwise, there is a paradox, the mutual antagonism of subject and style. The everyday world tends to be messy, undistinguished, incoherent; the work of art cannot be so. Flaubert wrestled with this while writing Madame Bovary: “What I find so difficult,” he complained, “are ordinary situations and trivial dialogue. To write the mediocre beautifully.” How Lynne Cohen copes with this challenge cannot be fully appreciated on the page. You have to stand in front of the full-size prints, which feel as big as picture windows, to grasp her tactics——based on, she has explained, “flat lighting, symmetry and deep focus.” These formal devices, combined with just the right amount of “cleaning things up a bit,” draw us into the pictures and into that strange, dissociative state they induce.

This is precisely the state of mind De Chirico termed “metaphysical,” and it’’s astonishing how much the two artists have in common, in terms of both vision and strategy. The painter made real cities look like cardboard scenery, although this effect of ominous flimsiness is produced by exaggerated shadows, while Cohen contrives hers by having even light bounce off slick surfaces of metal, tile or plastic. De Chirico’’s great invention was the use of the mannequin as a metaphor for the inauthentic human, and there are all sorts of mannequins in Cohen’’s photographs: the crash-test dummies in laboratories are perhaps her most pathetically hilarious evocations of the world of Discipline and Punish.

As pittura metafisica Cohen’’s work is perhaps the stronger, its wariness and bite more bracing than De Chirico’’s languid melancholy. And Cohen possesses a semiotician’’s eye for fatal detail, whether found in situ or arranged by the artist herself. In Spa (1999), for instance, a rotunda lined with cubicles, each furnished with a bed, is set spinning by the strong verticals of the columns framing the picture. The nail heads on the beds and the billowy covers make them resemble coffins “captive on the carousel of time.”

In Factory (1994), mannequins just off the assembly line stand straight, in orderly groups, mouths open, eyes straight ahead. They seem to be singing in unison, as if at a rally in Nuremberg, circa 1934. There is just one single figure out of alignment with the rest and it’’s hard to take one’’s eyes off her: she seems to know something the others don’’t. Maybe it’’s the code of conduct Brecht prescribes for perilous times, words to guide us through the world of Lynne Cohen’’s pictures:

Examine carefully the behavior of these people:
Find it surprising though not unusual
Inexplicable though normal
Incomprehensible though it is the rule.
Consider even the most insignificant, seemingly simple
Action with distrust. Ask yourselves whether it is necessary
Especially if it is usual.

This is a feature from the Fall 2002 issue of Canadian Art.