Miriam Cahn

Bonner Kunstverein

Miriam Cahn’s works on paper, in which she uses either charcoal or colored chalk, often seem to have been made in great haste. Her fleeting gestures suggest an effort to give form to thoughts and emotions in as direct a manner as possible, and the almost unbearable urgency of the images that appear point to a restless, doubt-ridden artistic practice.

The large works in charcoal generally involve Cahn’s whole body. Only by kneeling on the sheets of drawing paper can the entire surface be worked; as a result, she leave traces of her hands, arms, and legs. Cahn’s process has been compared to Pollock’s drip technique, but it also calls to mind the recent paintings Janine Antoni has made using her long hair as a brush. The work of all three artists suggests a certain willed bodily exertion, exertion to the point of exhaustion.

The most striking aspect of Cahn’s artmaking, however, is her attempt to sensitize the viewer to issues that include violence, the ravaging of the environment, and equality between the sexes, themes also reflected in her political activities—for example, her participation in the World Peace Congress as a delegate of the women’s movement. In addition to engaging in specific social and political debates, Cahn delves into more universal themes, causing the images she creates to function rather abstractly, so that at first one often overlooks any illustrative or anecdotal subject matter. In all the works, however, one senses a world that is out of joint. Faces are wide-eyed, and figures often lie on the ground as though dead or wounded. Awkward poses, screaming mouths, and eyes that are alternately anxious and devoid of expression transform the human body into a horrifying entity. Even the animals and landscapes depicted have a ghostly quality that taps into primal human fears. Many resemble blurred X-ray images, or seem about to crumble into dust, as though captured in the moment just after a nuclear attack.

Although this show was a retrospective of Cahn’s work from the last twenty years, the pieces were not organized chronologically, but rather according to themes that included “men,” “women,” “loving,” “landscapes,” “plants,” and “animals.” Many of the drawings were presented in the form of a frieze, with only slight separations between each work, so that there was a fluid transition from one to the next. The large charcoal drawings were also hung in blocks extending all the way to the ceiling. Cahn’s decision to dispense with chronology followed from her conviction that continuous development, in an art-historical sense, is ultimately irrelevant. The primary emphasis of this exhibition lay, then, not in the work’s evolution, but rather in the consistency of Cahn’s investigations over the last twenty years, despite apparent change. Even when one can detect significant formal innovations—for example, a recent move toward more garish coloration—a single somber tone runs through her work like a dark thread.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.