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Website: Chestnuts Design

Bernard Cohen at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road |  16 October - 21 November 2015

A review by Laurence Noga

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Bernard Cohen’s astounding and important installation of paintings and prints at Flowers Gallery surveys the last fifteen years of his work. The exhibition asks questions about his approaches, and explores how these puzzling paintings and printed works activate a set of concerns around their construction and sphere of influence. It is always difficult to unpack the numerous possibilities in Cohen’s systems and rituals, which often seem driven by a diverse number of starting points. This idea works in Cohen’s favour: the mysterious atmosphere he creates pulls you in towards the signs and multi-levelled structures, but leaves you unsure of the drawing that activated their making.

Installation shot: About Now 2005- 06 Acrylic on Linen 183 x 183 cm, Red Centre 1999 Acrylic on Linen 183 x 244 cm, In Black and White Time II 2004 Acrylic on Linen 61 x 61 cm

Turning the corner into the gallery, Cohen’s work immediately immerses you in a pictorial space that demands your attention. The focus of the show, the 1999 Red Centre, is a highly enigmatic work. The painting has an opening at its centre, a light red space that holds your attention - across the whole gallery - by changing the conditions of perception in that space. It lets the ground in, as the painting physically seems to spin on its intersection of red, yellow and blue diagonals. There is a coherent critical paradigm at work here, firstly because of Cohen’s clarity of graphic language, and secondly, because of the complex composition, which allows for differentiation between the two orders -  interconnection and representation - that surround its inaccessible nucleus.

Bernard Cohen, Red Centre, 1999, Acrylic on linen (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

The organic surface tension is created by tiny molecular forms, a bit like the movement of a snail across a paper surface. The decision procedures are buried in the compulsive intricacy of cells moving, shifting and expanding whilst containing  the core. This feels something like the expansion of the universe, as observed by Hubble. He noticed that the faint light coming from distant galaxies was red, and coined the term ‘red shift’ - the galaxies, millions of light years away from us, receding at the speed of light. Cohen emphasises this cosmological notion, placed against other grids that float like distorted windows at the front of the picture space. The orchestration of the whole system is partly an organic procedure, but also, through the evolution of ideas, and a highly sustained and systematic operation within the work, the picture emerges.

Place Games' 2013 Acrylic on Linen 137 x 167.5 cm, Zany At Home 2007 Acrylic on Linen 137 x167.5 cm

The combination of Zany at Home and Place Games seems to suggest a more personal phenomenology. Cohen’s ability as a storyteller produces a kind of drama in which he makes up his own rules and allows us to become part of his flow of ideas. It’s a compelling, often traumatic ride, driven by authentic experience. The technological and multi-layered references co-exist with a multiplicity of spaces. In Zany at Home Cohen’s maze structure is intricate and intense. We are pulled into a world of flashbacks and repetition, at the speed of thought, as the artist goes about his daily ritualistic practices. But in this case the pathways taken are flight paths, referring perhaps to the artist travelling in his mind. The pairing of this work with Place Games develops the reading of these two works towards a sense of the extra-terrestrial. Small handprints, almost like a child’s but not quite, move in a flat white ectoplasm. The grids that float over the work are architectural superstructures which provide another layer of camouflage, enabling the viewer’s journey from one existence to another.

Middle Distance' Acrylic on Linen 183 x183 cm

Middle Distance (2015) has a slightly slower-phased structure, both in its decision procedures and its structural composition. The intricacy of the grid is more playful in its realisation. The vast network of communities of dots inhabit the grids, in colour combinations that are difficult to comprehend, as they move only within  their own  particular square: red over green, green over red, white over black, black over yellow, yellow over yellow.

This magical approach reminds me of Paul Klee’s Egyptian landscapes of the 1930s; particularly Polyphony (1932)  whose pictorial space suggests a musical texture comprising two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, or visual enquiry. The visual surface is made of rectangles or squares that have overlays of colour similar to those that occur in Cohen’s painting, but the Klee is softer.

Another work by Klee in the same year, Ad Parnassum, specifically the dark outline that describes the pyramid and its doorway, may have suggested an element in Cohen’s  Time Between. In Cohen’s painting the drawing has an animated rhythm; the scale of the animal figures creates an insistent tension that makes this one of the most unsettling paintings in the show. The wolf (or dog) figures alter in scale across the vertical structure in the painting. The colour is colder than in many of Cohen’s other paintings; the white on black cells drop furthest into the distance, while the white on red cells pull you into the space. It is a painting that makes you feel nervous, edgy, transcending or freezing the human condition.

Swarm II 2004 Acrylic on Linen 183 x 244 cm, Swarm 2003 Acrylic on Linen 183 x 244 cm

The interplay In some of Cohen’s very densely-worked paintings, such as Swarm and Swarm II activate a palpable surface tension. Seen close up and in juxtaposition, these two paintings suggest modern warfare drones or anonymous aircraft creating a spiralling interplay. The controlled vortexes of image and colour swirl like a view of the power of nature, far out at sea. This painting calls to mind JMW Turner’s 1842 work: Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth. This work has a strong registration of middle distance, which allows us to see the daubs and planes of colour, and networks of scumbled marks. The idea that both these paintings are topographical, pictorially complex, interwoven, and revealed gradually over time to the audience, shifts the reading of Cohen’s work towards that of one of the painters he admires. The sense of the virtuoso painter, compulsively developing his working practice, links the two across time, but also through the emotional content working within the picture space.   

Bernard Cohen’s work has an inherent openness. The paintings’ tension comes from their ability to confront the viewer in a constant interaction between compositional precision and construction, and the paintings’ mobility argues their position in relation to society’s accelerated virtual futurity.

Laurence Noga, November 2015

Prints installation

Prints by Bernard Cohen can be seen at Broadgate, City of London

2 November 2015 – 8 January 2016