Critics’ Picks

View of “Sorel Cohen: Conceptual Metaphors,” 2021-22. From top: The Grid, 1975/2021, Triangular Grid, 1976-77/2021.

View of “Sorel Cohen: Conceptual Metaphors,” 2021-22. From top: The Grid, 1975/2021, Triangular Grid, 1976-77/2021.

Montréal

Sorel Cohen

VOX, Centre de l'Image Contemporaine
2, Ste-Catherine East Street 4th floor
November 18, 2021–February 19, 2022

The retrospective “Sorel Cohen: Conceptual Metaphors” showcases elements of the artist’s long career as a photographer, spanning the mid-1970s to now. Here, the organizers find cause to reexamine her feminist practice in imagemaking. Take Domestic Activity as Visual Information #1 and #2, both 1977. In these pictures, housework is caught in blurred process: items are mussed, cluttered, unkempt, though at times the disarray is crystallized into geometric formations. Unsurprisingly, the bed is a recurring motif.

The show was inspired by Cohen’s 1975–76 series of soft sculptures, “The Grid,” some of which make an appearance here. The works’ handmade qualities both adhere to and defy the modernist-masculinist pursuit of uniformity and repetition. So, too, do her parodies of Conceptualist seriality via her pictorial demonstrations of the repetitive nature of chores. In 1970s Quebec, Cohen was making revisions of her own, especially to art history via her formal deconstructions of the grid, something she identified as emblematic of patriarchal domination.

Most works in this presentation make critical reference to art-historical precedents. In the print The Camera Can Obliterate the Reality It Records, 1978, a loose adaptation of Eadwaerd Muybridge’s early motion studies, Cohen photographs herself while moving and is blurred into near oblivion. In the series, “The Shape of a Gesture,” 1978, she cleans a window with variously colored rags, satirically miming the macho bravado of the AbEx painter. On display in a vitrine are the preperatory documents for the series “An Extended and Continuous Metaphor,” 1983–86 (the final pieces are on display in a nearby room), in which the artist poses as both painter and muse in a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the male “master” and the female subjects of his creative domain.

Cohen’s portrayals of women in post-Renaissance art are crucial, as is her interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. In the 2008 series “Divans Dolorosa,” images of the titular daybeds—the kind we presume to exist in every analyst’s office—are subtitled with sundry impressions such as “obsessive fixations” and “me whom I hate.” In the aforementioned vitrine, a note demands, “What is the lack which has to be represented?” The statement repudiates Dr. Freud’s concept of penis envy, while seeking to liberate sisters in struggle.