Brian Cohen at the Putney School Art Gallery
Brain Cohen’s “Mid-Career Retrospective” at the Putney School Art Gallery in the new Currier Art Building, should put this long-time Putney School instructor up there as a major figure in print-making.
One-hundred and seventy-five prints vie for wall space in this well-organized show, spilling over from the main gallery onto all available vertical surfaces outside in the broad public gathering space, halls, and free-standing walls.
Prints are grouped by project or subject, which works well as Cohen has, over a wide span of years, a fairly consistent style and vision.
A love of dramatic darks, sometimes playing against just enough light to allow the objects or scene to be seen; a brooding handsomeness; a blending of an almost Swiss precision with the sensual – these are marks of Cohen’s work.
The main gallery space holds the largest of the show’s prints, which are also among the earliest. Most of these etchings originated in the books Train, Bridge, and The Zepellin Book. In these it is clear Cohen has retained a child’s sense of wonder at the majesty of things. He captures magnificently the numinous quality of a train seen as silhouette in the distance or, in “Train Passing Station”, looming large, bearing down as it roars by; the massive grace of the zeppelin’s whale-like body, sailing over the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, brutish and beautiful in its elemental force. There is an almost retro-look to these prints, reminiscent of Sheeler or others of the industrial era, who had a romantic vision of man’s “works”.
This power, in Cohen’s hands, can turn dark and foreboding, danger and destruction lurking as an undercurrent. Says he, in his artist’s statement, “I embrace themes of loss, futility, destruction, and unexpected redemptive beauty.” Trains plunge into ravines, ships are dashed against rocks, capsized in storms. Imagined scenes of disaster are equivalent, the artist says, to the way a boy “sinks toy ships in the bathtub, or crashes model airplanes on the floor.” The scenes are exploited for their dramatic graphic possibilities––the white foam and towering curve of a tsunami (“Tsunami”), the jumble of crashed locomotive cars cascaded into an abstract mass of planes and angles (“Train Wreck”).
Much of Cohen’s work lives in that territory that is akin to dream, where objects, scenes, are vessels for more than the fact of their being. They are ripe, in their dense darkness and illuminated edges, for imagination’s games. A house in the landscape, a tree, as much as an Italian ruin, weighs with the portentous. The work is richly evocative in both a narrative and poetic sense.
So it is not surprising that many of the etchings here are paired with a literary text.
I particularly enjoyed the broadsides, single sheets that contain an etching paired with a poem (or two poems). There are seven displayed in all. They span the decade, between 1997 and 2007, and include poems by Chard DiNord, Gerald Stern, Jane Mead, Joan Larkin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anne Marie Macari, and Alicia Ostriker.
Other books and folios in the retrospective are illustrations for Dante’s Inferno; Town, Cohen’s take-off on antique folding postcard books; What the Animals Teach Us; prints from The Fool’s Journey, 23 etchings of the major arcane of the traditional tarot; the series Winterreise, based on Franz Schubert’s song cycle; The Bird Book, a children’s alphabet; etchings inspired by Schoenberg’s song cycle, Pierrot Lumaire; Vedute Italiane, a series of images that depicts San Galgano, an abandoned abbey in Tuscany; as well as more classic “unique” etchings of fruit, flowers, rivers, and hillsides. Of these “Afternoon Landscape” is particularly striking, imparting the bright clarity of a sunny slope, with trees set against white ground in stark contrast, framed by two dark dense band –a thicker expanse of woods.
One long wall is made up entirely of watercolors. These constitute the most recent series in the show. The paintings, all about 12” x 10”, are made up of floating bands of color that collide and separate. They make for an interesting punctuation mark to the show. For me, they throw into bold relief Cohen’s singular vision and accomplishments of the past decades, and create an exciting forward momentum. As unlike the past as they could be, like an explosion of sun after the sullen beauty of a stormy day, they may take some getting used to. But in my book, with this body of work, Cohen has earned a ticket to ride wherever he wants to go.