Artists in Isolation: Lynne Cohen and the Fullness of Empty Space

Lynne Cohen, "Spa," 2006. Courtesy of the Estate of Lynne Cohen and Olga Korper Gallery.

There’s one image of a bed dressed in bleached sheets sanitized to a crisp, with a thin, folded blanket at the foot, in an eggshell-painted room with glossy, black laminate flooring and a single, utilitarian lamp that appears recently unboxed; it drums up the bloodless efforts of Airbnb hucksters to mimic habitability. Lynne Cohen’s half-century of large-format photographs – a selection of which are currently on display at a fraction of their natural size in an online “exhibition” called Fortifications at Olga Korper Gallery – depict empty spaces, many of which were never really meant to be occupied, only seen: impossible lobbies and waiting-room chairs that practically repel corporeal forms with their hardness, holes, or hokeyness. But then, there are also backlit pools of serene and noxious blues, framed by meticulously-laid geometric tiling in cavernous facilities, stirring deep daydreams of lone after-dark swims only possible in movies, or daylong spa sojourns in countries not my own. Many others in this set (“I do not work in series,” Cohen once stated. “I go back to subjects … time and time again, as long as I think I still have something to say about them.”) fly off the rails of familiarity, depicting crash-test dummies, floor-spanning maps, hat trees, flood lights, gun ranges, esoteric machinery, and in one case, a caged ladder leading somewhere unseen. Humans are always absent, but implied; consider all the people, ideas, intentions, disagreements, hirings, firings, negotiations, and concessions behind any single square foot of the built environment.

Since our readings of emptiness are informed by our ever-accumulating experiences, these works provide an inconsistent viewing experience; some stir desire, memories, or intrigue; others boredom, confusion, indifference. Cohen, with seemingly uniform interest, was known to bring her scenes to life in artist talks by treating them in the manner of a detective, confident that case-cracking information inheres in every scene. In a posthumous tribute to the artist at the Ottawa Art Gallery in 2016, one of her colleagues recalled, “a barely perceptible stain from who-knows-what-source on a floor or wall would be pointed out with a visible shiver, followed by a wide-eyed, slightly demonic look which inquired as to whether her audience were also troubled by this detail.”

Of course, these quiet interiors now carry the unwitting charge of a strange present in which such spaces have been hollowed out for reasons more concrete, and perhaps more harrowing. Some might be mistaken for supplements to articles about lost revenues, transmission hot spots, or penalties for noncompliance. But what’s starkly missing strikes me as far less interesting than the intricacy of everything that remains: the interiority of these interiors, so to speak, much of which may have even been obscured before this new emptying. After all, Cohen referred to these compositions as “gourmet platters” – a surprising, equalizing metaphor that seems to distil the essence of her pursuit with an easy chuckle, to provide a similarly goalless activity as poring over I Spy books, which also had the side effect of sharpening attentive faculties off the page. In the final decade of her work, she stopped titling the images altogether, as if time had made clear that nothing can really be summarized – as if when you attune yourself at the micro level, the whole picture becomes too complex.

 

Lynne Cohen, “Loan Office, Louisville, KY,” 1973. Courtesy of the Estate of Lynne Cohen and Olga Korper Gallery.

Lynne Cohen, “Untitled 2000s,” 2005. Courtesy of the Estate of Lynne Cohen and Olga Korper Gallery.

Lynne Cohen, “Untitled,” 2009. Courtesy of the Estate of Lynne Cohen and Olga Korper Gallery.

Lynne Cohen, “Untitled 1990s,” 2005. Courtesy of the Estate of Lynne Cohen and Olga Korper Gallery.

Lynne Cohen, “Untitled,” 2006. Courtesy of the Estate of Lynne Cohen and Olga Korper Gallery.

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