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Two Journeys: Bernard and Nathan Cohen

Some thoughts on an exhibition at Flowers Gallery, London 16 March - 5 May 2018

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

Bernard Cohen

I was delighted to be offered the chance to show my work alongside Nathan’s. Our interests in painting are somewhat different, and I was interested to see how they would look when hung as a single exhibition. I believe that the word ‘style’ should never be used when talking about painting post late Goya. I never speak of Art. I never think of Art when in my studio and never use the word in conversation. I hoped that what our paintings would reveal when hung side by side was something beyond surface concerns and differences.

There is, I believe, a kind of osmosis that enables people to share otherwise private interests. Nathan and I have always visited exhibitions together and have shared our thoughts about the arts. So talking about how our joint exhibition might work for us was part of a dialogue that began many years ago.

The first decision we made was that our paintings would be hung side by side and not as two separate exhibitions. When I eventually saw our paintings hanging together I had feelings of joy and celebration. I could see how different we are.

I have long thought of myself as a story-teller. It follows, therefore, that I am concerned with narrative. My canvas is where my narrative begins, grows and develops. My finished painting, and all that it contains, is my story.

I once made many drawings on paper before I was ready to paint on a permanent support of board or canvas. Now the story within my painting is how that story has been told. My drawing has become a kind of shorthand (sketch books instead of sheets of paper) out of which will emerge a number of potential painted images. I rarely begin to work on canvas unless I have a number of quite separate images that I want to bring together. They will become buried in each other, yet each will be clear to see. The stories, if told well, will be based upon my having chosen clear limitations. Not necessarily the simplest of limitations but certainly the clearest. I have been concerned with having clear limitations for as long as I can remember. Of course I am aware that the very notion of limiting ones means of expression runs counter to much current thinking.

Almost inevitably, my way of working leads to visual chaos. I welcome that chaos when it comes because I need to resolve it. In resolving it, I find out what my overall story has been about.

I am always referred to as an ‘abstract’ painter. I don’t understand why that should be. My paintings are what they are and the stories they tell are present for all to see. Images that inhabit my paintings are seen by me in everyday situations. For example: a vandalised and badly cracked glass door of a local grocer’s store, held together by strips of sticky tape, was at the beginning of a painting called 'About Now'. Aeroplanes that fly over my home and leave vapour trails of different shapes and thicknesses appear in my painting called  'A Very Large Array'. The paintings that hang on the walls, and the open door in the Velasquez painting ‘Las Meniñas’ have featured in my paintings and prints for over 20 years. Why do I include a painting by Velasquez among images of the everyday? Because it has been part of my life, and is revisited by me at will.

Nathan Cohen

Memories of things seen and experienced colour the way we see the world and are important for me as an artist, stimulating and informing what I wish to explore in the paintings and constructions that I make. The opportunity to show work with Bernard comes at a time when we have both travelled journeys, albeit for different durations and by our own paths. That we have done so, and in a way that is distinctively our own, is evident in the paintings that were exhibited together at the Flowers Gallery in London.

We could not know what this would reveal before seeing the work on the walls, and for each of us, and for others, there have been moments of discovery about what we share and how we differ in our vision and approach to painting.

When I paint a picture or create a space I am looking for a place where the eye can wander and that can stimulate the imagination. As I draw I am trying to find my way around, upon and through the surface of the paper. I am making journeys through line and shape to create new imagined spaces, in part inspired by memories I have of places, forms and structures that I find meaningful.

Surface and edge define much of what we see, and we visually navigate our way through a world composed of colour, light and shadow. These properties are also the building blocks for making a painting. I am looking for ways to compose with these, which speak of the universal and the personal, and to construct forms that can resonate with the experiences we share of the world around us that are open to interpretation.

When Seen 2018 Pigment and casein on cut panel, 107.5 x 107.5 x 2.5 cms © Nathan Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

An artist has to discover the nature of what it is that they are looking for and what they wish to speak of in the work they create. I have been making my own journey for some years now and in doing so I have become more aware of where my ideas originate. Time locates experience in context, and while I am seeking to find the way I can build anew with each painting, so I am also reflecting on how I have arrived at where I am.

I felt that this would be a good time to show work with Bernard. It is the first time our paths have touched on the walls of a gallery, and I decided to show mostly new painted constructions for the exhibition. I wanted these to be works that, while building on all that I had made before, also explored new ways to develop my ideas for how the pictorial can achieve a presence that relates to, and integrates with, the physical reality of the world we experience.

The result is the painted constructions whose physical form can play with and challenge perception of where space resides in the interaction between illusion and reality. I am constructing, on the essentially two-dimensional picture plane, structures that speak of the three-dimensional, making closer the relationship between the space within the painting and that of the viewer.

Mosaic 2018 Pigment and casein on cut panel, 234.8 x 230.4 x 2.5 cms © Nathan Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

Mosaic has multiple points of focus expressed through the maze-like structure of elements that intersect and emerge from each other and define the edges of the surface. Colour can both reveal and challenge interpretation of where forms appear to exist spatially; at one moment a particular area in the painting appears to advance while elsewhere it seems to recede. Light and shadow also interact with the painting’s structure, encouraging interplay between the painting as image and as object within the real-world space of those who encounter it.

I would like my work to offer an immersive experience, and as with Bernard’s paintings, reward the time a viewer takes to look and interact with it.

Bernard Cohen, About Now, 2005-2006, Acrylic on linen, (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Bernard Cohen, A Very Large Array, 1994, Acrylic on linen, (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York