New York

Lynne Cohen

Lynne Cohen does not show her photographs, she makes displays of them. Her recent show, which included work from the past 15 years, offered many such displays. Images of rooms, laboratories, classrooms, showrooms, practice ranges, exhibition halls, and offices—in which people and merchandise are tested and observed—are framed in faux-stone linoleum, the title of each photograph presented beneath the image and within the frame. Each scene is discovered and shot as is, before being repackaged by Cohen, lending significance to the show’s title, “Occupied Territories.” The image is then displayed like a product in a store window, reminding one of the classic mindbender: the painter painting a painting of a painter painting a painting. . . . Cohen’s series of cubical spaces alludes to the Renaissance box of space. Her viewpoint is always straight-on and symmetrical, revealing mathematically perfect two-point perspective at work outside of painting. Naturalism, the recurring platitude of photography since its inception, is tainted, not only by the recording of falsifications of nature, but also by the photographic angle; here, perspective only heightens the scene’s artificiality. Cohen seems drawn to schematized space and nature. She photographs other photographs (as in Practice Range, 1987) or set-ups (as in Laboratory, 1984): the photographs never contain people. In Hat Trees, 1983, absent nature is represented by clusters of birch branches, which serve as display racks for hats in a showroom. In a shadowy corner, an urn holds four dried-out cattails, sickly representatives of the great outdoors. An image that Cohen returns to quite often is the target-practice range. In Practice Range, two photographs (one of a man holding a child in one hand and a knife in the other, and another of a man in a ski mask holding a gun) are used as targets; they lurk at the end of a dramatic perspectival recession. The photographer shoots the photograph from the same location as the off-camera gunman. The viewer, in turn, indulges in the spectatorship of mediated violence.

Cohen’s photographs arise out of an impulse toward documentation. Her cool-eyed cataloguing of visually barren scenes (which, in her case, produces an almost non-retinal practice) reminds one of the road trips of Evans and Arbus. Unlike these artists’ efforts to document universals (nobility and sickness respectively), Cohen’s documentation functions in a more implosive, art-about-art way. Her interiors recall gallery spaces and, Cohen seems to say, perform the same functions: the display of goods, and, on the same level, the control of vision, thought, and behavior. Cohen’s work encourages the viewer to transcend the boundary of the object/frame and to examine not only the image but also the context in which it is seen. The strength of the artist’s work stems from her will to document the arenas of institutional control and mediation.

Matthew A. Weinstein