Decameron: David Cohen’s Decade

Originally posted in GalleryCrawl

Under Pseudonym: Erin Tireses

The playful curation of “Decameron” at the New York Studio School places an abstract
sculpture next to the only photograph in the show, a photo of two naked women engaged in
sex. Next to the photo, the sculpture is unmistakably vaginal, and next to the sculpture, the
explicit sexuality of the photo fades into the background. The sensual lines between the
lovers in the emerge.

01RossmanandPhoto
Harry Rossman, Curtain Wall Fragement and Ariane Lopez-Huici, Les Amants. Photo by Erin Tireses.

The show is a retrospective for David Cohen, the gallery director of the New York Studio
School, who for the last 10 years has curated mostly solo shows at both the NYSS and
elsewhere, so it is no surprise that he has taken this opportunity to show off his curatorial
chops. But the thoughtful placement of certain works next to others does more than merely
display his vast knowledge of artists and what a group show can be; the juxtaposition often
adds depth to the viewers’ experience with individual pieces.

An untitled charcoal drawing by Merlin James uses a minimal amount of lines to depict a
scene in a park. The lines are intensely expressive. The depicted bare branches bending in
the wind gave me the chills, and the drawing made me feel the autumn breeze. Next to this
work, a large metal sculpture by Rebecca Smith called Green Insect is bolted to the wall.
Due to its placement next to the James drawing, the lines of Smith’s sculpture feel more
expressive than those of other metal pieces. The sculpture began to titillate my senses as
well. The rigidity of the sculpture was reflected back onto the drawing, lending it the sense
of permanence that metal sculptures inevitably conjure, but which is difficult for drawings
to attain. One detail in the charcoal painting is two small figures conversing with a line
connecting them. It resembles a sloppy signature and highlights an almost undetectable
element of the sculpture. Viewers become an intimate part of the sculpture as well, even
though it does not depict any human forms. In the same way that the figures in the drawing
seem to emerge and share their connection because of the lines around them, the viewers of
the Green Insect interact with the piece and share their connection because of the work of
art about which they converse.

02James
Merlin James, Untitled. Photo by Erin Tireses.

03Smith
Rebecca Smith, Green Insect. Photo by Erin Tireses.

 

Two paintings hang next to each other on another wall, and they create a study in depth.
An untitled piece by Chuck O’Conner is uniformly thick with heavy green, yellow, and blue
strokes that never overlap. Lighter colors stand in the foreground, each creating the shape of
the capital letter E. At first glance the painting feels flat without an attempt to create multiple dimensions, but upon a closer look the viewer realizes there is another figure E, and that this
E has faded into the background not because of angles, spacing, shading, or placement – the
typical tactics used to imply depth – but solely through color. Thought darker colors generally
fade into the background next to bright ones, the way this E is painted gives it a weight and
presence that competes with those of the brighter colors. Its heaviness grounds the bright
colors, creating a strange relationship of balance.

 

04OConner
Chuck O’Conner, Untitled. Photo by Erin Tireses.

 

In contrast, Per-Model, by Francis Barth uses the traditional diagonal perspective line to imply
the three-dimensional space of a typical dining room and table. Yet the table, despite being
the only colored piece in the painting, and the only space that stands out in the middle of a
room, feels like the flattest part of the work. Even the figures that sit atop it are rendered flat
by its rigidity. The viewer is reminded that sometimes simple lines can contain more depth
than elaborate colors, and next to Chuck O’Conner’s untitled piece, you see that what is true
in one painting can be utterly false in another. Where color is used to make one shape stand
out in O’Conner’s piece, here the table fades into the background despite its color.

05Barth
Francis Barth, Per-Model. Photo by Erin Tireses.

One small painting evokes the role of the artist in a work of art. Blow-Up by Joa Baldinger
depicts a photographer wrapped around his camera. The black, empty space of the lens sits
in the center of the canvas and occupies most of the canvas. The photographer’s face is
hidden, the hair could be the hair of the lens, the fingers are connected to it in so many ways
they could be an extension of the machine, another mechanical component of the camera.
The painting made me feel as if artists and their art forms are inextricable, as if the center
of their being is their metaphorical lens, and they are constantly taking in the outside world
through their craft, be they a musician, painter or poet.

Next to this hangs another painting that depicts the interior workspace, and by extension
interior workings, of the artist. In the center of the canvas there appears to be a painting of a
wooded scene. Around this, paints, palates and brushes abound. But the edge of the painting
in the piece is so subtle that the wooded scene could also be the view from an exterior space,
evoking the feeling that all of life is a work of art and the idea that god is a metaphor for the
artist, the ultimate creator. Here, the wooded scene could be a canvas, the artist’s creation,
or a window, the artist’s inspiration. Inevitably, both are true. Where Blow-Up gives us an
interesting glimpse of artists from the outside, this work gives us a glimpse of artists from the
inside, equipped with the tools of their trades, both being created and creating their outside
inspiration. In this painting, one detail adds another level to this idea. There are handles on
the edge of the painting-window, as if the space that is both creation and inspiration is not
the view from a window but from a moving train, not stagnant and focused on one section
of the world, but constantly in motion. Sure enough, the curator offers us a hint by placing
a realistic painting of a train immediately next to it. This, Interior Truck View,Lough Key, by
Nick Miller, reminds viewers that both the images that inspire artists from without, and the projections they place on these images from within, are always changing.

07Miller
Nick Miller, Interior Truck View, Lough Key. Photo by Erin Tireses.

If viewers walk through the show in a natural, clockwise direction, the last dazzling piece
they see is the most experimental in the show, perhaps hinting at the way art, or at least
Cohen’s curation, will head in the future. In Color Chips Folded in Half, by Clintel Steed, 6
rectangles of wood, all of slightly different dimensions, and all attached to a larger single
piece of wood, each depict a similar beach scene of sun curtains planted in the sand.
There are hues of sunsets in some, rough weather in others, and the faint skeleton of a
bridge in the background of one. For the most part, the different colors and details remain
on different panels, but some distinct colors from one panel continue into another. Once
details such as the skeleton of the bridge are specified in one, the viewers begin to imagine
them in the others. Despite the rectangles’ physically separate segments, they all share a
single structure that holds them together. All of this reminds the viewers of that complex
relationship between art works, where each piece strives to assert its own individuality, but
can only do so by stressing its differences and similarities to others. This is a fitting self-
reflexive touch to the painting that says goodbye to the viewers of this group retrospective.

08Steed
Clintel Steed, Color Chips Folded in Half. Photo by Erin Tireses.

 

In his novels, Leo Tolstoy intimately introduces the reader to his characters one at a time,
then brings them together in extravagant scenes where their relationships are explored
through interactions, the nuance of which the reader understands only because of the way
Tolstoy introduced them. In these moments, the reader feels that Tolstoy understands
what the novel, as opposed to any other literary form, can achieve. The viewers feel
something similar about this show by David Cohen: he understands what group shows and
retrospectives, more than any other types of shows, can offer to both the artworks included
and the viewers who attended. In addition to adding depth to our experience with individual
pieces, he attunes us to nuances that exist in the world of art as a whole.

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