New York

Eileen Cowin

Jayne H. Baum Gallery

In her earlier photographic tableaux, Eileen Cowin cast herself and members of her family in domestic dramas that suggest frozen moments from upscale soap operas. Here she extends that interest, tracing a sort of family tree of melodramatic narratives. In an installation that filled half the gallery, long bands of black and white images, suggesting enlarged strips of movie film, circled the room; emerging from black backgrounds, the images in each band borrowed the ominous lighting, ambiguous themes, and radical spatial shifts and focus changes of film noir. Featured were such staples of noir iconography as a mysterious man gazing through a pair of binoculars, a woman in a phone booth at night, and an extreme closeup of an eye. As in any good mystery, however, the plot is fraught with ambiguity.

Among an accompanying selection of large Cibachromes, several prints suggested the narratives from Renaissance religious paintings, while others echoed imagery from Cowin’s installation. In one, a blindfolded man in the extreme foreground of the picture is turned toward a woman in a phone booth, while in another, a mysterious figure with binoculars looks down at a pensive woman in the frame below. Still other works suggest moments from Robert Wilson’s stylized theater pieces, turbid fashion shoots, or even the back-lot Sturm-und-Drang-und-smoke-machines of rock videos.

These images are full of symbols, but it’s not clear what they mean. In one, the man—in a fashionable suit, standing on a leopard-skin rug—is clutched by disembodied female hands; the woman, dressed in what seems to be a leather skirt, stands on a plot of grass. The somewhat hermetic quality of these pictures is apt to strike one as either tantalizing or frustrating, depending on your taste for ambiguity.

Cowin’s tableaux are more directly narrative than Cindy Sherman’s film stills, which suggested cliched movie scenarios without spelling them out. At the same time her borrowings from film noir are more elliptical than those of, say, Bruce Charlesworth. At times Cowin’s melodramatic tableaux suggest Peter Sellars’ pop stagings of Mozart—determinedly hip and a bit overwrought. More often, however, her charged stylistic lends quotidian events a heightened significance.

In moving away from directly autobiographical references in her pictures (she now works primarily with models rather than family members) Cowin seems to be trying to achieve a broader resonance for them. While she is not always successful in this, her best photographs bring an operatic richness of emotion to what remain essentially homey stories.

Charles Hagen