Found Places: The Photography of Lynne Cohen

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Lynne Cohen, Spa (1999), chromogenic print. NGC

If you’ve ever wandered into a living room, hair salon, storage room or workspace and felt there was something extraordinary about the space—that it hinted of bizarre people or interesting events no longer in evidence—you’ll find yourself in good company with American-Canadian artist Lynne Cohen.

Born in Racine, Wisconsin, Cohen originally studied printmaking and sculpture. In 1973, she moved to Canada, where she taught at the University of Ottawa from 1974 to 2005. For more than 40 years, she has used photography to turn “found places” into iconic works of art. Her photographs are so striking that many have thought them to be images of art installations, built specifically so that Cohen could photograph them.

The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) has brought together 23 of those works for a survey of Cohen’s career. Lynne Cohen – Between Something and Nothing traces the artist’s evolution from the black-and-white images of domestic and public spaces that marked her work in the 1970s, to the training centres and laboratories she captured in the 1980s, to her eventual shift to colour photography in the late 1990s.

“I’ve been fascinated with Lynne Cohen’s work since being introduced to it at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal last year,” says Paul Butler, WAG Curator of Contemporary Art. “Cohen’s work hasn’t been exhibited extensively in the West, and I really wanted to bring a survey of her 40-year career to Winnipeg.”

Butler raised the idea of a survey exhibition first with Cohen’s art dealer, Olga Korper. Given Cohen’s recent struggles with cancer, it became clear that, if Butler wanted Cohen’s involvement, the exhibition might have to be organized quickly. Realizing he would not be able to organize a full exhibition under tight deadlines, Butler decided to take advantage of the WAG’s @NGC partnership.

Through the partnership, announced in September 2012, the WAG can request access to the collections of the National Gallery of Canada to stage exhibitions in Winnipeg. The Alberta Gallery of Art in Edmonton and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto also have @NGC partnerships. Of the 23 works in Lynne Cohen – Between Something and Nothing, two are loans from the artist, and the rest come from the NGC.

Visitors to the exhibition will quickly notice that Cohen’s photographs are almost always of interior spaces. They never include people—only the spaces they inhabit. As such, the rooms depicted in the artist’s photographs encourage viewers to consider who uses these spaces, and for what.

“The photographs are almost portraits of the people who arranged these spaces, but without the person. They look staged, like movie sets,” says Butler. “For me, her work has that extra element you can’t really put your finger on. It’s like a battle between the two sides of your brain, where you look at it and say: ‘well it’s just a photo of a space,’ but it’s not, there’s more to it. And that’s what’s interesting, what her work draws out of the viewer, what it triggers, the places it brings them to.”

Ann Thomas, NGC Curator of Photographs, notes in her 2001 book, No Man’s Land: The Photography of Lynne Cohen, that the work Spa, 1999, which depicts the chemically saturated blue of an indoor swimming pool, seems so unnatural and hazy that it becomes difficult for the viewer to “reconcile the claustrophobic space with any notion of physical healing” typically associated with a spa. Who would use such a space? 

In the work Hall, 1999, the viewer is confronted with an enormous partition wall dividing a large space in a conference centre. The wall, notes Thomas, is divided into creamy pink rectangles that, when combined with the flat lighting, create an atmosphere of airlessness. The height of the doorknobs on the partition wall and an adjacent door meanwhile suggest that people of massively different sizes use the place, making it “almost a wonderland for a twenty-first-century Alice,” writes Thomas. 

This exhibition comes just as Canada Post is preparing to release a stamp and accompanying postcard featuring a work by Cohen: Untitled 1970. It should not be surprising that Cohen, an artist with an interest in found objects, has made it a habit to send friends postcards of shopping centres, golfing greens and other nondescript places. Now, visitors to the exhibition will be able to do the same from the WAG gift shop. 

The exhibition Lynne Cohen – Between Something and Nothing, is on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from April 12 to June 29, 2014.

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