Eileen Cowin (published by Gallery Min, 1987)
by Mark Johnstone

The photographs by Eileen Cowin symbolically explore interpersonal relationships between people. The basis for her current work dates to 1978 when she began to create and direct imaginary scenarios of domestic life. These pieces depicted aspects of relationships occurring between and among people—including moments of terse confrontation, sibling rivalry, romantic interlude, and mundane daily chores—which were either depicted alone or humorously blended together. The emotional or psychological feelings stimulated by these images are largely generated by the visual devices of gesture or pose that Cowin incorporates into the photographs.

There are numerous precedents or parallels for Cowin’s approach within the continuum of art, from historical tableaux vivant paintings to contemporary media such as cinema or television. Thematic similarities between Cowin’s photographs and specific paintings are intentional; these parallels are not exclusively formal, but an engagement of the indescribable and elusive movements that have been present, yet are frequently hidden or submerged, within human life throughout recorded time. They may be forms of awakening in the human spirit or soul, as can be described through words like “redemption,” “corruption,” “salvation,” and “grace”. These particular concepts have deep and resonant symbolic significance within western Judeo-Christian religious tradition, from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to that moment when a mortal Virgin Mary learns that she has been divinely blessed and is carrying the Son of God in her womb.

These ancient beliefs have always existed, even while terminology or circumstances have shifted and changed. What had traditionally been referred to as a human spirit or soul was renamed the “id” in the modern field of psychology. Likewise, art changed through the ages and the momentous and stirring meaning of Masaccio’s “The Expulsion” (1426) or Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation” (1455) became replaced with the introspective studies of Ingres’ “The Bather” (1808) or Edward Hopper’s “Eleven A.M.” (1926) and “Excursion into Philosophy” (1959). The painting by Ingres is a highly eroticized artistic vision of a moment in an everyday routine; the Hopper paintings, while being no less sensual, suppress any erotic qualities and address those introspective moments when an individual feels alone, despite the events and circumstances of surrounding life. There are also precedents for Cowin’s fascination with the dynamics of the family unit, as in Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Wedding” (1434), or Edgar Degas’ “The Bellini Family” (1860).

Cowin’s works from 1980 to 1983 are primarily busy scenes of adolescent children and middle-aged adults, which are provocative as curious moments of interrupted action. For a period of time she referred to these pieces as docudramas, a word recently coined to describe cinematic or television recreations of historical events. A docudrama is a fictional and dramatized version of real events, and is constructed to appear factual. The circumstances of contemporary American life in Cowin’s photographs are imaginary, although the characters and their expressed emotions may appear familiar. It is worth noting that although Cowin has continually portrayed herself in many of the images, they are not the confessional revelations of an autobiographical diary.

Her photographs are antithetical to the “decisive moment”, a phrase that is commonly applied to fleeting scenes which are acrobatically seized from ongoing life in the real world. Cowin’s images are structured as a juncture of implied actions among characters in a manner that is simultaneously specific and abstract. Interpretation or imaginative recreation of an image is based on an apprehension of psychological issues, unlike records of the real world which can be imagined as part of an ongoing continuum, and they are parts of a photographically stilled narrative. They are observations of life which will be interpreted differently by different people, based on an individual viewer’s own life experience.

A transitional period appeared in her work between 1983 and 1984, as the complexity of scenes gradually became simplified. Her figures increasingly assumed more elegant poses, imaged in a moment of stasis that serves to expand the implications of a pose or gesture. The work progressively changed in other formal ways which contributed to shifts in content. These new directions included: a shift from multiple lights to direct single source lighting, an appearance of older figures in her cast of characters, enlarged image dimensions (from 20 by 24 inches in 1982 to approximately 4 by 15 feet in 1984), and the multiple combination of images into a diptych or triptych format.

Cowin’s images probe the emotional, visceral, and intellectual resonance of narrative in a photograph. The groupings, which she has formed specifically for this publication, suggest a loose series of short stories, or novellas. The assembly is not chronological, but based around particular themes of interrelationship between people. Her characters and props are limited, like the sparsely staged productions of a small theatrical acting troupe. Particular objects and environments are repeated such as tables, telephones, beds, and certain rooms of a home. Romance and struggles within familial boundaries recur, and intruders or alter egos occasionally materialize.

A range of ideas about human relationships is played out within the restricted territory of her imagination. A bedroom becomes a private symbolic ground of intimacy between two people, and the perfunctory circumstances for food consumption become celebrated forums for expressive emotional exchanges of immaterial sustenance. Age-old issues of parenting, aging, privacy, and anger are occasionally revealed literally as fait accompli. In other images, dreams or desires are silently inferred as the unspoken relationships expressed through gesture and body language between people.

The potential of narrative is simply and eloquently illustrated by the diversity in her dressing of figures. The different ways that men or women are clothed can be a rich and resonant general evocation of culture, or imply specific rites and rituals within a culture. Cowin’s photographs cross the boundaries of time and engage both mythic depiction and tangible aspects of human life, as it exists through past, present and future time. Her images will likely acquire value as sociological interpretations of interpersonal relationships in the decade of the 1980s, just as similar values can be inferred from 16th and 17th century Dutch paintings or the 19th century Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts of Hiroshige and Hokusai. What can be experienced in them has been mediated through her vision—they are undeniably real images of an illusory world.