Sorel Cohen

Toronto Photographer Workshop

Eleven years ago, Sorel Cohen photographed someone making a bed and then made these pictures into a series that linked housework to the repressed history of women’s art. The approach, given the subject, might have been cool, documentary, polemical. But using a slow shutter-speed on her camera, Cohen instead showed blurred figures cracking bed sheets into soft, bucking arabesques. Here was a slinky romanticism that injected play, sex, and passion into the middle of a buttoned-up political argument. Since then Cohen has kept this sensuous aspect of her work closely guarded. Her photographs have become allegorical images investigating representation. Cohen sometimes portrays herself as a painter, locked, somewhat stiffly, into an intermediate space between viewer and subject. Short semiotic texts also make an appearance as part of the image; the intent seems to be to fashion a caveat against the seductive capacity of images.

In this exhibition entitled “Beyond Recovery,” her guard is down somewhat and we can see an interesting friction between a luxurious image life and a narrower course of intention. Binary combinations of colored images are linked on a black field with black-on-black titles, nearly invisible, underneath. The title piece, Beyond Recovery, 1988, for instance, shows a violet-colored Matterhorn landscape linked to a blurred, yellow image of the Pantheon in Paris. Perdu, 1988, joins Tours Cathedral, blurred and in negative, to a blue-tinted Hawaiian beach scene. Withheld Without, 1988, juxtaposes a blurred image of New York’s Woolworth Building with the gaze of two young female tourists. There are seven works, and all connect romantic, touristic landscapes to high art and culture. The point is to make another image critique. Artificial-looking—the color combinations sometimes make more sense than the image combinations—the works reduce the physical to a blurred, broken film loop. The titles themselves sneak up out of the black with a terse, depressive tone. Cohen wants the titles to nail down some of the sad finality involved in the winnowing away of the real world: she seems to say, we are all tourists here, out looking for a world seen in picture books.

It has become a truism to say that images reduce and manipulate the real. Ten years of “media” art has inveighed against this problem, often naively. The terms of the debate assume an untouchable continuity between images and reality. Argument revolves around the purity of this connection, and its susceptibility to corporate, political, and ideological programming. We are asked to beware trust in images: they have made a pauper out of the real. But how true is this and how responsible are images for the problem? Cohen’s binary arrangements make it a simple equation, showing a transaction between images that ends up as a pithy, melancholic title coming out of black, like the voice of conscience. Yet the images have a life of their own. Gothic Lament, 1988, for instance, shows Grünewald’s horizontal Christ linked with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. The curve of Christ’s body rhymes with the curve of the bridge, and it is not a silly or inconsequential rhyme; rather, it is as if a secret connective had been discovered. The effect is of a surprise, not a swan song. It is the title, the equation, the program that seem more to have fallen short. Cohen’s pictures presume that optical reality can be reduced and corralled into something logical and textual. But their own vitality belies this. They reveal that images are, after all, only tools, and that the problem with tools is how to use them.

Richard Rhodes