For her most recent exhibition at Toronto’s Olga Korper Gallery, American-born, Montreal-based photographer, Lynne Cohen, continues her compelling exploration of the puzzlingly vapid interior spaces we appear to have built for ourselves but, at least in the artist’s gigantic colour photographs, never actually seem to inhabit.

If the photos had been made at off hours—during the early morning, for example, or after hours—then their haunting and rather dispiriting emptiness might feel somehow appropriate. But Cohen’s photographs invariably give the uncanny impression that her chosen sites have always been empty (and pin-drop still)—and always will be.

Some of Cohen’s photographs are of large, essentially evacuated rooms and spaces (such as an empty, semi-circular, multi-windowed pavilion in Venice with a single, gigantic chandelier hovering over it like a wandering star, or a blue and white tile swimming pool in Portugal, the ornateness of which would have embarrassed Esther Williams).

Others photos, of no less faux-grandeur, but smaller in scope and scale (furniture groupings, for the most part), generate a similar sense of eloquent absence. Indeed these smaller moments (one can scarcely call them intimate), onto which Cohen directs her huge 8 X 10 camera, reveal, perhaps even more poignantly than ever, the stylistic emptiness of what is generally identified as modernist design—bearing in mind, of course, that Cohen deliberately memorializes only particularly extreme, absurd and even slightly demonic examples of runaway modernism at its most abrasive.

What is one to do, exactly, with her photograph, for example, of a grouping of three angular, absurdly moderne white chairs (with their red pillows placed upon them with such annoying, geometric precision), the whole irritating arrangement plunked on a circular red carpet of the same scalding red hue as the pillows)? To paraphrase Lord Byron, “I laugh so that I might not weep!’

It is often the case that because Cohen’s selected spaces are so resolutely, tellingly sans personnel, the objects and environments we find in her photographs end by themselves taking the places of the human presences you’d normally expect to encounter there. These strange modernist objects and situations are engaged in some inexplicable muted dialogue with themselves (never with us) in which they endlessly proclaim their own unreachable complexity and what is, for us, the inaccessible meaning it generates.

Take her almost symmetrical photograph of two matching hi-back chairs (one eggshell white, one black), flanking a diminutive wooden table (on a dull grey floor against a fog-grey wall). Each chair has only one arm (the one furthest away from the camera) which, I guess, makes them easier to slide into. On the wall behind the chairs is a flat, zippy configuration in metal—like a hood ornament without a car. Its function, no doubt, is somehow to amplify and reinforce the speedy, au courant quality of the ghastly chairs. Which, assuredly, do “talk” together. Surely they whisper to one another, within their private, otherworldly realms, of ideas about inchoate, unspeakable notions of a longing for community and use? Or maybe they just laugh at us?

One of the most forceful works in the Korper exhibition is Cohen’s exceedingly large (76.5 inches x 91.25 inches) photo of an immaculately polished room (creamy terrazzo floor, polished stainless steel walls), exuberantly dominated by an enormous loop of red sofa (like an infinity sign you can sit on). If it turned up in a film like Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, everyone would laugh at it. This visceral, red machine-for-sitting is undeniably striking—so much so that it looks positively feral. Why did Cohen photograph it? The sofa is located way beyond décor. It’s actually more like an alien spaceship—come to rest in a sterilized hanger.

What is Lynne Cohen trying to tell us (and what has she been trying to tell us in similar photographs since the 1970s) in these stirring photographs of less than stirring places and objects? She is clearly not a design consultant (or anti-design consultant), and she is not much interested, therefore, in merely showing us the error of our design ways. Nor is she a satirist: her big, implacable photographs are always too aloof for that, too self-absorbed to be pedagogic.

No, I think Cohen is after something else entirely: I think she’s the virtuoso documenter of airlessness, of the almost tragic slippage between design-as-welcome and the accelerating condition of design-as-mere idea. There is no place for any of us in Cohen’s photographs. Everything you see in them is self-sufficient—and excruciatingly alone. l

17 Morrow Avenue Toronto, ON
Tel.: 416.538.8220
April 28-June 1, 2011

NB: The Olga Korper Gallery would like to congratulate Lynne Cohen on being the first winner of the prestigious Scotiabank Photography Award, which honors an artist’s unique contribution to the art world, and celebrates their vision. The award includes a prize of $50 000, as well as a book deal with the art photography publisher Steidl, and a curated photography exhibition for the 2012 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.