New York

Mark Cohen

Leo Castelli Gallery uptown

Mark Cohen’s photographs equate close framing and abrupt truncation of images with mysteriousness and an aura of special insight. His subjects, however banal they really are, claim to be of extraordinary significance and ultimate metaphorical possibilities. For example, he’ll isolate a plastic bag containing an abandoned pimiento jar lying on the sidewalk. The close framing argues a fascination with this object—argues that we should be fascinated by it—and the overall grayness of the picture ironically compounds the sense that something very special has been singled out. The picture asks our careful attention (undeservingly) since the jar apparently means enough to the photographer for him to have ignored how unbeautiful, even uninteresting, it is. Likewise, watching from a moving car, Cohen will fix upon a solitary beetle crawling across the cement. Certainly, it is possible to be fascinated by insects, frequently for dark and mysterious reasons (Kafka has been a little more persuasive in telling us what these are).

Cohen’s mechanisms are sound enough; in fact, they have been employed in some of photography’s finer achievements. In the best work of Josef Koudelka, for instance, they dramatize material that is already fairly extraordinary, grotesque and filled with mystery. Koudelka cuts his subject closely to give it an extra push toward the surreal. But in most of Cohen’s pictures, content and form simply fail to cooperate. His work is an excellent demonstration of the mechanical power of close framing and abbreviation in time, but his brazenly fat girls and grins full of enormous teeth begin as dull common sights and end-as jazzed-up common sights.

Cohen’s work proves that one cannot (though I have often heard that one can) make a good picture of anything. Form in an art is a powerful tool; used carelessly, it is as wanton as a chain-saw in unskilled hands. Cohen has not gone quite so far as to apply his chain-saw to toothpicks, and in fact, he may be using some restraint in the current show. However, his work is far from creating and sustaining a seen or imagined world; it is more a case of flaunting the value of the self and subjectivity against all odds—of insisting upon the self’s right to speak however much it speaks of trivia. The lugubrious sum of Cohen’s work is finally so vague, because so dependent on pointless mystification, as to be uninterpretable. For Gene Thornton to argue that Cohen’s work describes the pathos and provincial malaise of life in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is simply to indicate that the idea of a sick and decaying America is so popular as to be applicable to anything and everything that looks dull or ugly.

Leo Rubinfien