Afterimage, May/June 2000
by Thomas McGovern

A mid-career survey can provide the opportunity to examine an artist’s oeuvre and intentions, present the development of the work’s depth or unintentionally highlight its shortcomings. Part of what makes such a survey exciting is the implicit understanding that there is plenty of work still to come. “Still (and all)‚” presents 27 years of photographic work by Eileen Cowin and provides a great deal of insight into her enigmatic and influential work. Curated by Sue Spaid, the exhibition shows an evolution of style and sensibility while it simultaneously conveys the continuum of the artist’s message. The 40-page catalog is densely packed with images spanning the artist’s career while texts by Mark Alice Durant and Spaid poetically interpret and analyze the work.

Cowin is an artist who is well served by this type of exhibition. Her photographs and videos are sensuous and mysterious and for those unfamiliar with her work, the meaning of individual photographs can seem elusive—look at one picture and you may feel that you have missed part of the story. Literal readings of the works are only partially useful because the images resist our desire to simplify and draw clear, linear narratives. She sets up non-linear relationships between objects and words, gestures and expressions and between spectator and image. Her best works continue to resonate long after seeing them.

In the early ‘80s, Cowin’s series “Family Docudrama‚” (1980-83) received wide exposure for the use of staged domestic narratives that suggested both positive and negative emotional attachments. Cowin appeared in these photographs and was often accompanied by her husband, stepchildren and twin sister. Her increasingly spare sets and strong lighting clearly referenced cinema and, although obviously constructed, her tableaux were seen by viewers as moments of complex, authentic human relationships.

Having achieved critical success with the “Family Docudrama‚” series it is interesting that Cowin did not choose to remain working with this single aesthetic. Instead, her work continued to evolve. The history of art and particularly photography is replete with individuals who have found success in a style or subject matter from which they rarely varied. Cindy Sherman (to whom Cowin has often been compared) has continued in a singular style for most of her career. Cowin, however, has rejected this narrow approach. By 1983 her “Family Docudrama‚” images were included in the Whitney Biennial and 10 other group exhibitions, had comprised four solo exhibitions and had been written about and published extensively. It would have been easy and perhaps even beneficial to her career to remain working in this familiar and familial terrain. Certainly in the fickle art world, repetition is potent currency whereas experimentation, exploration and investigation are, like the relationships Cowin portrayed, more difficult to interpret and recognize—but arguably also richer. From her early transparencies and gum bichromate prints to her photographic homonyms, constructed docudramas and recent videos, Cowin is a restless pursuer of the perfect still that suggests all.

The Armory Center has distilled Cowin’s 27 years of artmaking into approximately 50 works ranging from 1971 to 1998. Cowin’s earliest photographs are black and white transparencies, some in shadow boxes, that depict layered and superimposed imagery. In these poignant images, the artist references herself in domestic settings. The “real world‚” is not the subject so much as a vehicle for the artist’s personal investigation of the nature of human relationships.

Gum bichromate prints from 1973 to 1975 continue the investigation. Soft pastel colors and sensual, suggestive, erotic imagery evoke the sexual liberation of the era, but this message is complicated by the regular addition of images of seemingly unrelated events sewn onto each print’s surface. Like the superimposed imagery in the earlier transparencies, this added pictorial element begins to establish the artist’s concept of narrative structure. The presentation of two or more simultaneous images or ideas is the basis of this conceptual investigation, suggesting movement through time and changing or competing actions.

By the late ‘70s Cowin’s work became sparser and more specified while its mood became more cerebral, demanding that the spectator interpret works directly or be left behind. This dramatic and important shift was both stylistic and substantive. Whereas the gum prints and transparencies could be enjoyed both viscerally and intellectually, the former was enough for most viewers to get by on. But in the “One Night Stand‚” series (1977-78) and the photographic series of homonyms (1978) an awareness of the tension between form and content becomes essential to their richness. In one pairing of 20 x 24 inch color photographs from “One Night Stand‚” we see fragments of a telephone, lamp and tabletop. Leaning against the lamp is black and white Polaroid print of a man’s clothed torso as he appears to be removing his pants. The color photograph is softly lit and the image’s color palette ranges from a cool gray-blue to mauve to beige. The series’ title immediately evokes the sexual promiscuity of the ‘70s, reinforced by the image of the man disrobing. Paired with this is an image showing a portion of a bed with rumpled sheets cast in a soft, mauve light. The edge of a television screen can be seen and the Polaroid from the first photograph is subtly inserted in the rumpled sheets, implying that someone is underneath them. Both images are sparse, minimal compositions that are connected by their nearly monochromatic tonality. All the elements in both pictures are fragmented, giving viewers just enough information to surmise a bedroom and a sexual relationship. Absence is the strongest feature of the images, furthered by the series title, muted hues and minimal design. The Polaroid photograph continues the idea of a memory and acts as a surrogate for an actual relationship beyond casual sex. The opposition in these works between nature and culture, personal and public, reality and simulation is established and then collapsed. In 1977 Cowin began the conscious blurring of fiction and non-fiction, leading to her “Family Docudrama‚” series.

Cowin began the docudramas in 1980, the year former actor Ronald Reagan became president and the blending of fact and fiction began to subsume the American way of life. Sincerity was out—the calculated approach was in. This zeitgeist set the stage for a flood of postmodern ideas and images in which Cowin’s work was positioned in the center. Already free from presenting specific stories, the human relationships that were suggested in the earlier “One Night Stand‚” were realized in “Family Docudrama‚” as she assembled family members for her cast. Adding a twist to the now overtly psychological drama in the work was Cowin’s identical twin sister and the striking resemblance between her husband and stepson.

In a color photograph entitled Departure (1981), a woman in business attire appears to be leaving a room. With a sports jacket slung over her shoulder, she looks back toward a young girl and another woman with an expression suggesting both longing and self-confidence. The girl appears to be trying to approach the businesswoman and is either being held back or encouraged to proceed by the other woman—possibly her mother. In an open doorway behind the girl is a large black and white photograph echoing this scene—a man with a jacket over his shoulder is exiting while a woman comforts a young girl.

Questions abound in such enigmatic imagery. Is the businesswoman symbolically abandoning the child for a career or is she just putting on her jacket and saying goodbye? Both women seem emotionally attached to the girl—are they a lesbian couple or extended family members? Why does the picture in the background echo the scenario in the foreground? Most disturbing, why are the two women apparently the same person? Do they represent two halves of the same individual or different people?

Cowin’s response to such questions reveals her position as auteur and the inspiration she has taken from cinema. “I begin with a drawing, then devise the wardrobe, color scheme, lighting and I come up with the perfect gesture. Everything is mapped out.‚”*1 In Departure, these predetermined elements used with particular facial expressions allow Cowin to suggest family tensions that most of us have buried in our unconscious. The pull between professional obligations and familial attachments, marital transitions and the impact these changes have on children is acted out with a self-consciousness that is painfully real and supported by the artist’s acknowledgment of the themes of separation and departure in some of her photographs.*2 This narrative is further supported and complicated by the casually placed black and white mural in the background, a recurring device in many works in this series. In this instance the background image is nearly identical to the main action with a few important differences that highlight the changing nature of interpersonal family relationships. Where the background mural shows a traditional scenario of a man leaving the family and a child being comforted by a woman, the foreground scene demonstrates a contemporary career woman and the modern child’s mixed reaction to the separation. In this instance, the black and white mural in the background image acts as a memory or history of the way things were. The image of her twin provides a reference to the doppelganger, the ghostly double, the other self. The component slyly reminds one of Diane Arbus’s twins and places off society’s fascination with twins and the psychological competition that they must face. Most important to the complexity and ambiguity of images in “Family Docudrama‚” is the eye contact, or lack thereof, between the players. In Departure there is no eye contact and the paths of the actors’ gazes do not cross. The multiple readings of the work are triggered by two, three or four sets of oppositional components that the artist continually utilizes, establishing a psychological drama with no conclusion. While the photographs denote a scene or set of scenes, the connotation is expansive. It is this recurring convention that gives Cowin’s work its richness and what sets it apart from the work of other mise en scene practitioners.

The combination of these elements in what seems to be a simple photograph is what gives this work such depth. The setting, gazes, gestures, expressions and props offer multiple and contradictory readings and the exact identity of the players and the meaning of their poses are left to the viewer to decode and decide. As Cowin has said, “The theme is long lasting; the images are long lasting; the possibilities are endless.‚”*3 Unlike the work of Gregory Crewdson, Sherman or Jeff Wall, there is seldom just one storyline in Cowin’s work and the narratives are rarely based on the characters’ interaction in a shared event. Instead, Cowin continually sets up competing complicated and ambiguous relationships through the above mentioned devices. This complex narrative structure is accomplished within a sparse set incorporating few, but important, details.

Beginning in the late ‘80s and continuing into the ‘90s, video begins to appear in Cowin’s work, and while the medium seems to be an obvious vehicle for narration, her approach actually constricts its most useful storytelling device—motion. Cowin’s video work is often employed as stills and even her continuous video projections rely on suggestion more than on action. The force of the video work comes from the intimate emotional experiences eliciting doubt and longing, while simultaneously referencing the media-saturated world through the work’s very non-dramatic, anti-TV posture.

Cowin’s recent work freely mixes color and black and white photography, video stills, single channel videos and video installation and is perhaps the artist’s most powerful work to date. The net effect remains consistent for the artist—probing the nature of personal and social relationships and human emotions through the use of non-linear narratives, partial narratives and connotation. “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About‚” (1988), includes 12 30 x 40 inch photographs (color, black and white and video stills) assembled in a grid of three rows of four. Each image could be a frame from a narrative film. Cowin’s careful arrangement leaves the viewer in doubt as to what the narrative is, but suggests a host of familiar relationships such as falling in love, heartache, betrayal, anger, loneliness and separation. Across the top, a grainy video still shows a man pulling a woman close to kiss—she resists slightly, but smiles and we imagine that she will succumb. Next comes a thorned rose stem with a drop of blood on the tip. A finger, also tinged with a drop of blood, is inches away. Next is an image of a man’s face, eyes closed, suggesting not sleep, but more likely denial or ennui, followed by a black and white image of a woman clutching a purse. Remaining images show a man’s blistered thumb, stacks of mail, a man screaming, and the blistered heel of a woman’s foot as she lies in bed. There is a dreamy image of gauzy curtains (perhaps the previous woman’s bedroom), a man’s bleeding finger (possibly from the thorn), and lastly, a grainy video still of a woman turned away from the camera.

This final artwork epitomizes Cowin’s message and approach—each image is a scene suggesting a long-forgotten story whose characters we store in our collective unconscious. The images and the implied narrative are open-ended but are made pointedly emotional through the use of gesture and expression. We witness love lost (or maybe found) and are left with many clues and no conclusion. We could be witnessing an actual relationship or one based on conjecture. This could be about real people or merely a fairy tale. It is the artist’s balance between control and intuition that allows this drama to function and take hold of the viewer. We see idealized love suggested by the picturesque and romantic symbols and communicated through the body, its wounds and blood. Like language, these photographs are surrogates for reality, full of meaning but incomplete in and of themselves.

The timing for this show could not be better. The current fashion for mise en scene work is reaching a crescendo as witnessed by the celebrity of the photographers from last year’s “Another Girl, Another Planet‚” exhibition in New York City (see Afterimage 27, no. 4). It is not difficult to recognize a link of influence between the artistic practice of Malerie Marder, Justine Kurland (“Another Girl‚” participants), Liza Ryan (who studied with Cowin) and Sharon Lockhart to the one perfected by Cowin over the past 27 years.

The desire to collapse reality and truth, two of the traditional hallmarks of photography, comes at a time when photography is undergoing a rapid transformation due to the digital revolution and our collective pondering of the line between fact and fiction. The invention of this new paradigm has many founders and certainly this survey demonstrates that Cowin is one of them. Throughout her career Cowin has made work that explores the gulf between what we see and what we feel, and has done so with originality. Of particular note is that after much success, she is producing her best work to date. As an artist and a teacher at California State University Fullerton since 1975 Cowin has had a major influence on photographic practice, setting the stage for others and presenting a model for the restless pursuit of the unspeakable and the undeniable. As the term “mid-career survey‚” implies, she continues this pursuit, her desire unsatisfied.

1. Dublin, Zan. “Cowin: Set-Up Scenarios‚” Los Angeles Times (September 8, 1985), p. 91.
2. McCarthy Gauss, Kathleen. “Eileen Cowin: The Facts Never Speak for Themselves‚” New American Photography (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1985), p. 108.
3. Ibid., p. 110.