Los Angeles Times, January 29, 2000 Art Review
by Christopher Knight

In today’s dot-com world, when Mom-and-Pop stores have gone digital and adults regularly turn to teenagers to answer their most vexing computer queries, it’s increasingly difficult to recall the time when the budding technology revolution felt just that way: revolutionary.

Twenty-five years ago you could see it coming, off in the distance, if only in things like the sudden proliferation of Polaroid cameras and the arrival of portable video systems. Technology hitherto restricted to corporate and industrial titans was starting to become available to you and me. Artists got excited.

Something of that hazily remembered 1970s ethos lurks inside the small survey of camera work by Eileen Cowin, newly opened at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts. Cowin’s photographs evince a quality that might be called do-it-yourself Hollywood. Her single-image photographs and multipanel works are threaded through with narratives of quietly charged domestic drama, once familiar from B-movies but long since transformed into genres like television movies of the week and afternoon soaps.

Take “Family Docudrama” (1980-83), an eight-part grid of pictures. Each photograph shows an independent scene, which is connected to the others mostly by the repetition of characters. Individual photographs portray a surreptitious phone call made in a bedroom; a stolen embrace out in the garage; a petulant girl (daughter?) scowling at a woman (mother?); a grim-lipped lovers’ quarrel, and more.

These scenes tell no linear tale. The quarrel seems to be between lovers because elsewhere, in other pictures, the man and woman turn up in bed.

You don’t read Cowin’s pictures in sequence, from upper left to lower right, in order to find out what happens in the story. “What happens” happens in each separate image: The photograph, like a Baroque painting of a classical myth whose long-forgotten story you do not know, offers up recognizable people doing familiar things—characters onto whom you begin to impose your own ideas.

Those imposed ideas are an amalgam mixed from personal experience and memories of stories absorbed through mass media. Cowin declares as much by occasionally revealing, rather than always hiding, the lights, camera, tripod and other paraphernalia used to make her pictures.

When, for example, she shows a distracted couple lying in bed and surrounded by an elaborate camera setup, as if waiting for a director to holler, “Action!,” a discomfiting aura of loosely illicit voyeurism is ratcheted up a notch. (Does this make Cowin the unseen director? Or is it us, as viewers, who propel this scene into action?) At the same time, the photograph suggests the degree to which life in an era dominated by mass media is not simply lived, but also gets subtly acted out.

Natural experience gets shaped by a variety of scripts, personal and intimate, as well as anonymous and socially constructed. We may not even be aware of them. But this peculiar modern condition of enactment is a territory that has been of interest to a variety of gifted artists since the late 1970s and 1980s. They range from the collages and installations of Alexis Smith to the photographs of Nic Nicosia, Cindy Sherman and many others.

Cowin’s work is an integral part of a photographic genre that emerged full force in the 1980s. It was once succinctly described as pictures “fabricated to be photographed,” rather than captured from the flow of daily life. The genre has numerous descendants today, including currently popular European artists such as Thomas Demand and Oliver Boberg.

The Armory exhibition, organized by guest curator Sue Spaid, includes 48 photographic works dating from 1971 to the present, as well as two recent installations mixing still photographs with projected video. Because the show is not chronological it can be a bit confusing to try to follow Cowin’s trajectory. But the nonlinear narrative of the installation does underscore a critical feature of Cowin’s own approach, while the Armory’s gallery is small enough to make sorting out the chronology a finally undemanding task.

Cowin’s earliest photographs, which incorporate layered transparencies in plexiglass shadowboxes, introduce the domestic subject matter that dominates her work. Next, around 1973 and 1974, come pale, washed-out images that tamp down a distinctly sexual current, as if pointedly playing against the sensationalism usually encountered in erotic pictures. Reflecting concerns from feminist art of the period, many of them also incorporate secondary images sewn onto the surface with needle and thread.

In 1978 Cowin began to pair aesthetically “dumb” Polaroid snapshots that give visual form to sound-alike words, whose dictionary definitions are handwritten below. For example, a male figure, his head cropped off, crashes together some big brass cymbals; adjacent, another headless figure holds an icon showing Jesus atoning at Gethsemane. Cymbal meets symbol, while a drama of revelation unfolds.

These homonym Polaroids constitute Cowin’s first full-fledged Conceptual works; they recall most closely the precedent of Bruce Nauman, whose photographs from the late 1960s picture linguistic cliches. They immediately precede her mature work in the 1980s, in which the popular visual languages of movies and TV get the rug pulled out from under.

Cowin’s best work can be deceptively simple. A large untitled 1985 Polaroid, for example, looks across two pairs of feet in bed, toward a black-and-white TV playing on a pedestal. The scene is familiar to countless couples who’ve watched late-night TV through their toes—but Cowin surreptitiously smuggles in anxiety—producing cues.

The TV set is surrounded by wallpaper whose pattern suggests a hallucinatory night sky. The fellow’s feet are upright and casually crossed, signifying relaxed attentiveness to the TV program, in which a domestic confrontation between a woman and a man appears to be unfolding. Her feet lie side by side, facing away from his, as if she’s rolled over and gone to sleep.

What’s the story here? A benign nightly ritual? The loaded silence after an argument? The tense wake of a refusal of intimacy?

Cowin creates the opposite of a mass-media fiction, which would attempt to manipulate an audience into following its story to its own conclusion. Instead she offers tantalizing clues but withholds meaning, allowing you to come to conclusions of your own. Conflicted dialogues between the sexes are held in delicate suspension.

The process doesn’t always work, as in some late-1980s photographs whose obvious references to classic paintings in the Western canon mostly conjure the similarly inclined—but more playful and powerful—art history photographs by Cindy Sherman. And sometimes a degree of obscurantism occludes our entry into the picture, making their perusal feel more dutiful than intriguing.

But, using a distinctly modern visual language, Cowin at her best provocatively explores the fraught territory of personal relationships. This welcome show offers a concise overview of her often quirky body of work.