Miriam Cahn, IM DUNKELN (In the Dark), 2019, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 × 55 1/8".

Miriam Cahn, IM DUNKELN (In the Dark), 2019, oil on canvas, 70 7/8 × 55 1/8".

Miriam Cahn

Galerie Jocelyn Wolff

For feminist artists coming of age in the 1970s, painting was mostly a medium to be rejected. Miriam Cahn, for instance, started out drawing, creating large-scale chalk and charcoal pieces on the floor. It was only in the mid-’90s that she took up oil painting. A pair of consecutive but overlapping presentations in Galerie Jocelyn Wolff’s two spaces featured almost fifty works: One chapter represented that transitional period of the ’90s, presenting the artist’s little-known but crucial experiments with painted color; the other displayed her most recent work in oil. Collectively titled “notre sud” (Our South), the shows did not so much tell a story of progress as offer different perspectives on Cahn’s work.

Chapter one, which comprised color sketches of animals, plants, and humans in diverse painterly mediums that looked like they were glowing from within, engaged with issues of the body, sexuality, nature, and war. What appears to have concerned Cahn in these works, more than exploring the color spectrum, was carrying over the rapid, corporeal, performative working methods and immediacy from the charcoal drawings. This was particularly evident in her work with primary-color pigments, which she had rubbed onto a series of concrete slabs in KÖRPERLICH (Physically), 1994, and pushed around paper with fingers and brushes in was mich anschaut (Looking at Me), 1994, a sequence of faces mutating from owl to human. For watercolors such as träumend (Dreaming), 1995, portraying in profile a recumbent figure with a bright-red phallus and breast resting her head on poisonous yellow ground, Cahn allowed streams of paint to run down the vertically affixed paper, but in oil paintings such as Sarajevo, 1995, she layered pigment on canvas to create the intense contrasts and blurred outlines of a veiled face.

Though Cahn’s more recent oil paintings on canvas and wood in chapter two were less luminous, they were also larger and more complex, dealing with a wider range of subject matter. Disturbing scenes of barren landscapes with exposed bodies drowning, giving birth, masturbating, or penetrating or punching each other evoked issues highlighted in the media, such as sexual violence or the refugee crisis. Quickly sketched works, which had been temporarily set aside and reworked, as indicated by their multiple dates, also allowed for multiple, incongruous interpretations. In IM DUNKELN (In the Dark), 2019, a scene of sexual violence—dim but for the oppressor’s bright-red lips, single nipple, and erect phallus—the ghost of an earlier version in the form of another arm still showed through, adding another layer of ambiguity to an image that could not be classified in familiar terms of pleasure or pain, rape or porn. A precisely sequenced digital slideshow, das serielle denken (The Serial Thinking), 2020, revealed the various stages of Cahn’s paintings. These images made clear that the artist’s aim in redoing a painting was not to make it better but to make it different—perhaps to consider excluded possibilities. Though Cahn’s layering and reworking relied directly on the material properties of oil paint, the approach also recalled her drawing practice and her writing process. When crafting the text torture pictures in may 2004, in which she describes the relationship between one of the infamous 2003 Abu Ghraib torture images—of a female soldier holding the leash of a collapsed prisoner—and a performance by VALIE EXPORT, Cahn restarted eight times.

As epitomized by the title “notre sud,” which alludes to the body as much as to geopolitics, gender identity and oppressive relations, whether sexual or other, need to be reassessed according to diverse cultural and subjective perspectives. By conflating categories such as personal/political, man/woman, human/animal, and painting/drawing, the artist questions fundamental hierarchies. What made this exhibition satisfying—despite its difficult-to-stomach images—was the way in which Cahn’s complex ideas about nonbinary identities emerge from her long-standing, corporeal engagement with her medium: the material realities of color and paint.