Chicago

Ronald Cohen

N.A.M.E. Gallery

There is nothing mannered about Ron Cohen’s expressionism. Certainly striking, these works, ranging from large canvases to big, two-sided pieces on wheels with one or more mattresses attached, are not pretty. The surfaces are predominantly painted black; projected on these dark backgrounds like fleshly X rays are translucent, ghostly-white figures, their heads always cropped by the canvases’ top edges. (The cropping recalls the formal approach of Philip Pearlstein, once a teacher of Cohen’s.) We view these nude male forms from the rear, often observing testicles hanging below the buttocks. In several three-dimensional works actual metal funnels are inserted into the rectums of the figures. Needless to say, this is tough, raw male art.

The works on rollers each show a vertical side and a side slanted toward the top at about a 60-degree angle. Here, Cohen maintains a dialogue between opposites: vertical/slanted, first person/third person, closeness/distance, mannered/conceptual. There is no discernible difference between the imagery on each side. Mattresses are attached to either or both sides; in one case, two mattresses are cut open diagonally, exposing springs and stuffing. Pillows and fabric are stitched or stapled to several canvases, creating wrinkled, lumpy textures for the black paint and white figures to adhere to. The works have titles like Melancholia I, 1983, and Emblem of Impotence, 1983. These lumbering, clunky, erotically angst-ridden pieces have the feel of old, conceptual avant-garde ugliness meeting new, mannered avant-garde ugliness—Robert Rauschenberg’s combine Bed meeting Julian Schnabel’s antler-sprouting The Exile. Ultimately neither mannered nor conceptual, Cohen’s opposite components cancel each other out. Despite heroic dimensions, the use of unorthodox materials, and powerful sexual content, these Trojan horses are ultimately overly ambiguous and strange.

Cohen’s work of the past few years shows a transition from sculptural and installation pieces to more conventional paintings with increased figurative development. Eschewing mattresses, the newer paintings beef up figural musculature and pack greater information into more complex compositions. One painting, The Bed, 1983, even has a well-defined, if disembodied, face and head. This appears to be the direction Cohen is leaning in, and, sans funnels and other hokum, it should better express his formidable and under-utilized classical training.

Michael Bonesteel