Cora Cohen was with out a studio when she began applying cuts of wood veneer to her stretched linen rectangles. She was thinking about architect Jean Prouvé's historic housing designs for the dislocated. She calls some of these paintings "Nomads."
The wood veneer in these elegant, curious works absorbs the moisture from paint applied over it and leaves the black pigment on top. The absorbency of the surface is one of several ways Cohen makes "porousness" core to the pictorial and physical space of her paintings. It is also a surface on which inchoate questions of personal experience - of the self, of the self's makeup, the self as it is lived in the world - may be suitably placed.
Cohen's remarkable sensitivity to materiality and to tactility goes all the way from the "ground" up. The artist paints mostly on linen, a canvas with natural, irregular weaves to be contrasted with cotton's mechanical uniformity of grain. This matters, at least in the eyes of a painter, as it reflects the artist's organic continuity from start to finish in the working process. When the artist applies one of her several translucent paints -watercolor, thinned oils or acrylic, Flashe paint, matte medium and inks, for example - she distances the color, as stains of ranging intensities and saturation, into the fabric's inner depths. The bleeding edge of watery marks, or lines of color that let those underneath come through, create atmospheric scrims that layer themselves and move as if gravity had no hold. Soft, nearly imperceptible clouds of background color soaked into the canvas's fibers are on the edge of their own existence, coming into and out of being.
Some of these works might rightly be regarded as paint "in* canvas rather than paint "on" canvas, but the thrust of these technical decisions Cohen makes is one of pictorial confluence, fusing disparate entities. Even when scraping into recently-applied paint to uncover what's beneath, she is merging two colored forms, the top and the bottom, by scratching out a dueling third. Poured matte medium creates a translucent barrier between the canvas and what's to be applied next; often it is pigment which must then find a place in the cracks, crevices, and gaps within that clear, hardened form. These sealed areas, impenetrable, are not amenable to change. They obviate the porosity and keep the work in constant flux.
In a recent studio visit, Cohen mentioned that she'd like to make paintings one could "walk right past." Her instincts to keep working paint quietly into the background confirm this. The presences - that is, shapes and entities - in and across her works do not demand your attention, but they are nevertheless felt. You notice them as you would be aware of other persons around you, without needing to look at them. You notice them as you would strangers around you, on the street or in a room, whose presence you register but don't directly see.
To read or see a work by Cohen is to be in its presence and feel its extensions, its agency, and identity. There is no clear boundary to the paintings; the space within them expands and contracts, oscillating in and out of flatness and depth. This ambiguity of the work's own contours shifts itself into the viewer's boundaries, cognitive ones as well as the physical. Which then asks a question - to take the paintings seriously -of one's own boundaries.
Our sense of self and its circumscriptions mediates how we experience the world and others. We are now, modern people, atomized in our self-conceptions with set boundaries. But it was not always this way. In premodern times the self was porous, with open contours, living in an "enchanted" world permeated by the will of the cosmos and foreign agents within it. We were part of its ways and living within its meanings. There was no perimeter around some "inner" area that is our "true" self. By contrast, it is the modern self that is bound by fixed perimeters, bifurcated into public and private selves, maker of its own meaning. But as a symptom, there is a longing for the self to be uncontained.
Cohen's paintings express this longing. More specifically, they work within it and seek out, through searching lines and floating forms and shifting veils of color, what an unbounded existence might look like.
Rob Colvin is a painter and art writer in New York. He writes for Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, Burnaway, Dwell and other publications. In addition to a degree in Philosophy & Religion, he holds a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and MFA from the University of New Hampshire.