photo murals by
In his latest show of all new work, titled The Lotus-Eaters,
Jeff Cowen is exploring complicated ideas with repetition of images, variations
on repetitions, double-takes, positives and negatives, organic growth
and multiplicity of similar things that are each different and unique
yet part of a species or sub-species. Repeating patterns of dots often
arise, as do patterns of flowers, leaves, branches and weeds. We see eyes
going astray, eyes open and closed, caught between wakefulness and dreaming,
veils and shadows.
The artwork is abundant with markings: in the settings, on the models,
markings on the surface of the print. Scratches, burns, spills, and bits
of chaotic randomness flow out here and there over the print and into
the edges. Sometimes the edges seem to have more information or gesture
than the original photographic negative, hinting perhaps at a mutation
of DNA in the evolution of photography. There is a violence here and melancholy,
but also I think, a profound intuitive sense and understanding of what
pumps so powerfully below the surface of things at all times.
This is a virtuoso performance, with straight ahead portraits that shimmer
with the light of Vermeer or Rembrandt, and then the strange and bizarre,
like the beautiful young nude with a wandering eye posing with such peace
and ease in a field of high-grown weeds going to seed. Others seem like
manic all-night bender craziness with painted bodies in the studio, headdresses
of twigs acting out home-brewed rituals and rites.
Collages are perhaps his strongest point, making your eye bounce back
and forth and all around, creating a multiple perspective visual space
that is cinematic and cubist, timeless and completely modern.
These mural-size prints are more than a meter wide and almost twice as
high. They hold a commanding presence in a room, dwarfing most everything
around them. Repeated viewings reveal new rich, dense pleasures and exquisite
A handsome small catalog proves that these larger than life images hold
up fairly well on the printed page (but they are much better when viewed
in person). The catalog text is a bizarre French philosophical rant by
André Labarthe, and probably because my French is so poor, I can
make practically no sense of it whatsoever.
The title of this series and the show, The Lotus-Eaters, calls
to mind (intentionally I am sure) those mythical slave-like inhabitants
of tropical islands who were lulled into a perpetual state of not-unpleasant
apathy (drugged, dulled, dreamy) without the ambition or inclination to
change their situation. (There is a quote about Lotus-Eaters from The
Odyssey in our blog).
Cowen continues to evolve as an artist-philosopher using photography as
his foundation on which to build complex interrelated visions. The work
is on display at Gallerie Seine 51 in Paris through December 16, 2006.
For a look at two previous bodies of work by Cowen, and to listen to an
audio interview with him from 2004, check the archives
of Lens Culture.
— Jim Casper