New York

Bruce Cohen

Ruth Siegel

It is possible to divide the world of contemporary art into those who like realism and those who don’t. For those who don’t, realism is commonly regarded as reactionary, and realists and their supporters as the archconservatives of the art world. Realists are interested in the cultivating of technique for the sake above all else of continuing Old Master conventions of representation, the only exceptions being the Photorealists. The latter, on the basis of their elevation of the photographic esthetic—and their concomitant slap in the face to traditional realist taste—have been accepted by certain critical elements of the progressive mainstream of the art world.

These remarks are prompted by California artist Bruce Cohen’s show of recent paintings—a show that I hope represents a renewed openness toward realism. Cohen’s paintings clearly demonstrate the rich rewards that realism is uniquely endowed to offer. By combining aspects of the interior and the still life, Cohen creates scenes of domestic environments that, although they are without people, are haunted by human presence.

In one of the paintings shown here—all of which are from 1987 and all untitled—part of a dining area is shown off a kitchen. The taut planar construction of the composition moves the eye through the carefully articulated foreground, middle ground, and background, each defined by the furniture and decorative objects and by the walls, windows, and other architectural elements filling the area. Cohen’s precise style, the way in which the forms seem at one with both the tightly rendered contours and the smooth modeling of their colored surfaces, gives to the scene what might be called an overall atmosphere of “thereness,” making all that we see thoroughly believable. The more time we spend with this painting, the more the process of seeing, of taking perceptual measure of the individual objects, their shapes, their placement, and their relationships to each other in this scene, leads to questions about their narrative significance—the untold story of which they are undoubtedly a part. To whom do the two cups set on the table and the pair of stools located before the table belong? Why aren’t they there?

Cohen is able to use the literal side of appearances to evoke the hidden, symbolic side of reality. In another work, painted predominantly in gray, black, and white tones, the composition shows part of an interior made up of an ensemble of windows and walls, doorways and shelves, all treated in the same objective fashion as the still life items that are depicted. There is a table, the top of which juts across the bottom of the canvas, ending just below a shelf that supports a striped vase with flowers. The interior and the patches of cloudy sky visible through the open windows present a picture of quiet harmony, with the palpitating open and closed structure of planes and rhythmic arrangements of forms harmoniously resolved into an image of dynamic stasis. What we see appears so palpably real as to be totally convincing, a matter of fact. Herein lies the mystery as we begin to wonder about the possible deeper meanings surrounding the condition and placement of these things, like the three pears on the table and the white lilies in the vase, in this particular room.

Ronny Cohen