Life Painting

Reading the title of a painting by Ed Cohen one wants to know more.  The Form the Pleasure Took, As If an Ocean, or The River is Fateful are elliptical, their compressed and disjunctive grammar both condensing and obstructing the release of meaning.  We assume that they are sentences or phrases taken from a specific context, but this is left unclear, like pages from the middle of a book.  We have to reconstruct, to imagine, to ask the question: Where is it from?  And this is exactly what Cohen’s painting invites us to do: although a form like a necklace or a petal might seem recognisable, they are like extracts, scenes which always suggest a movement and the presence of a space beyond the actual contour of the image.

Cohen has spoken of the instantaneous emergence of each picture.  Colour and canvas are prepared carefully, yet the application of the paint itself takes place in a way that cannot be reversed or touched up.  There is no room for revision here or for rethinking.  Evoking the enso circles of Zen monks, Cohen stresses how this directness turns each painting into a document of his inner life, a snapshot which both captures and dramatizes the tranquility, the yearning or the violence of an emotional state.


This gestural directness gives each of Cohen’s paintings a quality of the Zen ‘You are that!’ an ineffable and quite irreversible ‘objective correlative’ of the painter.  Yet these works explore the question of time and transcription at many other levels.  Besides documenting an inner state, they offer us a space to question where a painting begins and ends and how form is crysallised.  Chains of colour float on the surface of an aqueous, liquid canvas.  We perpetually experience a movement – swift or slow – as if paint was both a substance and a temporal process.


Where do these chains and spirals and spirals of colour begin and end?  Origins and endings are always off canvas, as if we are only glimpsing a segment, an extract of the flow of time.  We never see completely; there is no ‘oeillade’, no view that would take in and encompass the whole temporal process.  Even when the chain seems to be complete, as in the necklace paintings, Cohen’s use of surface reminds us that we are only party to an extract: the forms appear floating, like bubbles on the top of water where the process leading to their creation is still invisible.  These are paintings that we watch rather than see.


The forms themselves echo this incompleteness.  The swirls, splashes and ripples of paint evoke the transitory effect of a disturbance to a still surface, like the aftermath of throwing a pebble into a pond.  At the same time, the expansions and contractions of paint evoke the organic processes of flowering, of budding and blooming, also transitory decay and ending.  These organic processes are caught in the paint work itself, their movement not simply frozen but, because of the incompleteness Cohen works with, actually played out for us, repeated in our experience as we view the paintings.


This concern with natural processes is part of Cohen’s preoccupation with cosmology.  They seem to present to us both a micro view of the world and a macro view: we see the chains and spirals of DNA or tiny newt-like life forms, yet also galaxies and solar systems.  We see flower floating on water yet also the electron tracks of particle physics or the blips of a radar screen.  Cohen’s art manages to make each painting a coalescence of two worlds, as if an infinite distance were suddenly reduced to zero, as if the painting was staged at the edge of the micro and the macro.  The chains and ripples are both too near and too far away, as if a Gestalt switch would render a universe into a raindrop or a flower petal into a galaxy in a fraction of a second.


Cohen’s paintings create two parallel yet conjoined worlds, bringing with them some of the wonder of discovery.  This can feel like the wonder of a first encounter with a microscopy or the telescope, or those moments of suddenly seeing ‘more’ that make the history of science so vivid.  Cohen’s recreation of this scientific wonder is linked also to an art historical thread, as it focuses on the emergence of form from apparent chaos.  Science and art share this interest in discerning structure in what seems unstructured, from Brownian motion in physics to the Fibonacci structure that biology finds in flora.


Cohen’s eye is drawn less to this structure as a product, well-defined and bounded, than to the actual process of emergence, or creation in the temporal sense: form as something that crystallizes right in front of us.  Rather than the Modernist emphasis on making form or the Romantic insistence on duplication nature, Cohen’s art inhabits the in-between space where an underlying form gains a consistency, a form that may be fluid and ungraspable yet is form all the same: something emerges from the monochrome and voluminous backgrounds, just as the titles of the works spring from an unknown source in a strange efflorescense.

What kind of form is this?  We could certainly think here of the sciences, but as Cohen makes us engage with the density, unpredictability and lightness of his paints, we realise it is less a depiction of biological form than a kind of biology of painting.  The paintwork itself is organic form, alive due to the sense of moving time that the works inspire.  Rather than simply painting life, it is a life of painting, as if Cohen has created a special and unique world which his works invites us to share.

DARIAN LEADER, a writer and psychoanalyst based in London, is the author of Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing (Faber) and many other books.