Still (and all) Eileen Cowin, Work 1971-1998
The Impossibility of Expression
by Sue Spaid

Contrary to what is suggested by the humanist claims made for photography, the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying the truth.*1

Set Up to Look Set Up

Film’s well-documented influence on art and the development of computer imaging has placed “set-up” photography (a.k.a. mise-en-scene) at the center of the medium. However, it was an unfamiliar genre only twenty years ago, even though 19th century photographs such as Julia Margaret Cameron dressed and composed their sitters. In 1979, a San Francisco gallery director was left quite baffled after a conversation with Eileen Cowin; the director thought photographs were supposed to look believable not “set up to look set up.” Susan Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography, a compilation of earlier essays, publicly challenged photography’s veracity and thus paved the way for Postmodernism’s full-scale analysis of photography’s ability to feign truthfulness. Her assertion that “the consequences of lying have to be more central for photography than they ever can be for painting, because the flat, usually rectangle images which are photographs make a claim to be true that paintings can never make”*2 must have sounded earth-shattering in the early 1970s. Prior to On Photography, only a handful of known photographers, such as Minor White, Ralph Gibson, Duane Michals and Robert Heinecken, readily challenged photography’s epistemic claims, though dozens of Southern Californian artists were contesting “the conventional distinction between lie and truth”*3 implicit in photography.

Given the inherent sincerity of 60’s and 70’s aesthetics (Greenberg’s truth to materials, Minimalism’s specific objects, pop art’s quotidian references or Fluxus’ live happenings/events), it’s not surprising that concurrent photographers sought a gritty reality. Photographers like Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Richard Misrach, Nicholas Nixon, Bill Owens and Garry Winnogrand tended to document the extraordinary hidden in everyday life. The next generation examined photography’s potential for artifice mostly by simulating reality, and a handful—James Casebere, Eileen Cowin, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall—froze fantastic scenarios to perpetuate new realities. As photographers forged reality from fiction, viewers abandoned their faith in truthfulness, and began to experience boundlessness previously reserved for painting and cinema.

Still (and all)

Since 1995, the genre known as mise-en-scene (French for setting a stage) has exploded into proto-cinematic photography. Dozens of photo-based artists from Meghan Boody, Jenny Gage, Anna Gaskell, Alexei Hay, Dana Hoey, Hubbard & Birchler, Sarah Jones, Justine Kurland, Sharon Lockhart, Chantal Michel, Liza May Post, and Vibeke Tandberg to Sam Taylor-Wood yearn to capture film’s duration and event simultaneity within a single static frame. Mise-en-scene facilitates an illusion akin to film, thus upending the conventional distinction between the still and moving image, whereby “the still photograph is evidence; the moving photograph, illusion.”*4 Sharing Eileen Cowin’s earlier quest for fantasy (the gum prints (1973-75), One Night Stand (1977-78), Lady Killer (1977-78) and Family Docudrama (1980-83) series), this newest generation revitalized mise-en-scene to explore and cultivate new realities.

On viewing proto-cinematic photographs, suspension builds as the contemplative spectator selects an image’s primary event and then conjectures before, during and after events from the surrounding clues.*5 Thus, the spectator supplements each work’s creation via interpretation affirming Duchamp’s aphorism: “It’s the viewers who make the pictures.” By contrast, Cowin’s concurrent ineffable strings of straightforward stills (Don’t Ever Lie to Me (1994), Match (1995), Small Intimacies (1995), White Heat (1995-96), Through No Fault of Her Own (1997) and I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (1998) confound the direction of time rather than sketch it, baffling those who enjoy constructing scripts. Comprised of strips of seemingly unrelated images, they seem nonsequential rather than sequential (left to right), though they reference a mode of storytelling that originated with Christian altarpieces. In this respect, Cowin’s nonlinear structures parallel the development of recent films such as Pulp Fiction or Out of Sight, which popularized nonsequential flashbacks. One’s response often resembles the refrain from Cowin’s favorite Kurosawa film, Rashomon: “I can’t understand it.”

If a still offers evidence, then the “still” segment of Cowin’s exhibition title connotes Roland Barthes’s notion of the classic text, which has “nothing more to say than what it says.”*6Thus, one can attribute the “and all” portion of her title to everything the photograph shows but does not specifically express.*7 For Barthes, “the classic text is pensive...replete with meaning...yet it still keeps in reserve some ultimate meaning, this zero degree of meaning...this supplementary...signifier of the inexpressible, not of the unexpressed.”*8 The treacherous gulf lying between what the viewer perceives as inexpressible (the pensive) and as utterable recalls Duchamp’s “art coefficient,” his distinction between the “unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.”*9

Still (and all) denotes a literal translation of some static and self-evident component (expressible) engulfed by a dynamic and inscrutable everything else (inexpressible). Paradoxically, still and all means “nonetheless” of “even with everything considered,”*10 which actually contributes more skepticism regarding photography’s veracity. While the trendy proto-cinematic generation injects movement into the still, Cowin is saturating video with stillness (A Form of Ecstasy (1994) and It Goes Without Saying (1996)), thus further twisting the typical storyboard format’s narrative. By magnifying the zero degree of meaning and the length of duration present in an otherwise static still, Cowin’s mid-career survey, Still (and all) exposes the general problems of expression.

L’Impossibility du Fer

Eileen Cowin has often remarked, “I have been involved in the study of relationships.” An identical twin, she entered into an unusual long-term relationship at birth. Many other kinds of relationships recur in her work, including word/image, family/lovers, cause/effect, duration/activity, surveillance/voyeurism, stimulus/response, victim/persecutor, observer/observed, reality/fiction, subject/object, and director/cast member. Family Facing Camera (1984) captures a nuclear family reproducing itself in its own image; thus their fraudulence is forever framed as real. The ultimate voyeur, the camera carelessly renders each subject an object.

One of Cowin’s earliest projects (1978) presented two different images side-by-side that correspond to same-sounding words as Sink, Bound or Feet. Although she never visually depicted the homonyms associated with the word “impression,” the twin meanings of the word “impression”—an imprint made on a surface by pressure and the effect produced on the mind—has long intrigued her. Theoretically, homonyms multiply the potential number of relationships between words and images. Any visual exploration of homonyms initiates an unfolding chain. If one word evokes two images, then each image might yield two new words (four words), potentially engendering two new images (eight unrelated pictures), etc. Maybe Cowin’s recent multi-panel works bloom from such a process, only now the homonyms go unnamed.

Not surprisingly, the punning Duchamp toyed with homonyms. When asked to define genius, Duchamp replied, “l’impossibility du fer (the impossibility of iron),” which is homophonous with “l’impossibility du faire (the impossibility of making),” which is synonymous with both the uselessness of making (grinding one’s pigments vs. buying a tube of paint) and the impossibility of choosing a particular object or color. By expanding words into a cascade of images, Cowin thwarts the reader’s urge to collapse a picture into its linguistic equivalent.*11 “Indeed, it is the direction of meaning which determines the two major management functions of the classic text: the author is always supposed to go from signified to signifier, from content to form, from idea to text, from passion to expression; and in contrast the critic goes in the other direction.”*12

Even as viewers become familiar with Cowin’s repeated imagery, her motifs resist translation, particularly as some pictographic language, since each picture’s interpretation is hardly stable. The seeming unrelatedness of Cowin’s multi-panel imagery recalls Duchamp’s literal nominalism, the grouping of several words without significance, such as cheek, amyl and phaedra, to yield pictures independent of each reader’s interpretation. “The reproducer presents ...without interpretation, the group of words and finally no longer expresses a work of art (poem, painting, or music).”*13

For Cowin, the impossibility of making is simply the impossibility of expression or authorship. Thus, Cowin’s work is central to any characterization of an anti-representational theory of art in which no linguistic items can represent non-linguistic items.*14 Artists who refuse the real are free to introduce fresh experiences, novel concepts and emotional depth akin to Socrates’ first Form (or pure idea). Pictorial terms without precedent (novel concepts) avoid Socrates’ critique that representations don’t tell us anything about the reality that exists in the notion of things.*15 While the images comprising Family Docudrama (1980-83) appear to depict some actual family, this series actually anticipated heated debates in the 1980s concerning “the mommy track,” “working women” and “stay-at-home moms.” Set up to look set up, there is nothing real about them. “[T]here are no people, only characters; there are no events, only performances. Daily life thus presents itself as an impenetrable network of social relations; reality and role playing are indistinguishable.”*16

Emotional Depth

As director, script writer, cinematographer and editor all rolled into one, Cowin is wholly responsible for developing each character’s emotional depth and inspiring her actors to evoke relevant responses. Like a Mike Leigh film, Cowin’s intense works engage the viewer in temporal explosions of anxiety, bitterness, dread, terror, intrigue, danger, boredom, ecstasy, affection, displeasure, betrayal, confusion, grief, pity, panic, regret, nostalgia, disdain, contempt, gratitude, pride, remorse, indignation, resignation, eros, desolation, dejection, lament or anticipation. While the list of emotions seems endless, the number of photographers who dare to explore emotions (seemingly only Cowin, Taylor-Wood and Bill Viola) is quite short. Interpreting one’s own emotions, let alone capturing another’s, is quite tricky, especially since so few emotions are directly observable, unlike a pinch, a pimple or purple hair.*17

From the onset, Cowin has explored emotions, yet her images still espouse the difficulty of clearly articulating either an emotion’s cause or its interpretation. Dozens of early works engender sensual delight—Untitled (taking off shirt) 1971), Untitled(woman’s skirt/nude couple) (1971), the Genuine Delicious series (1973) and The Hand is Quicker series (1974). As cheeky, erotic and playful prints, their motives are never clear, but the response belongs as much to the viewer as to each image’s subject. Although Three Women (1987) float, they seem exhausted, delirious, and almost disappointed. Potentially a post-party round-up, they appear engaged in a bit of self-reflection. With their backs facing the viewers, Three Men (1987) seem emotionally unavailable and rather unconcerned with introspection.

The overly bleak nature of the bleached out One Night Stand series sets it apart as rather emptied of emotion, as if the subjects are too drained to feel. Given their miniature night stands, casually displayed self-portraits and decentered croppings, they hardly seem matter of fact. These situations are charged by the absence of inhabitants. The subjects in the Lady Killer series are also missing, yet each picture’s aggressive overtone clarifies some of the underlying emotions.

The works in Still (and all) run the emotional gamut. One soon discovers contradictory emotions peering through sensuous surfaces. “Many emotions...come in networks of relations, from which no single one could with integrity be abstracted.”*18 While the gap between the still and all, or expressed and shown, may never disappear, Cowin’s images provoke experiences that enhance one’s awareness of the complex range of emotions present.

1. Sontag, Susan, On Photography (1977), p. 100.
2. Ibid., p. 78.
3. Desmarais, Charles, Proof: Los Angeles Art and the Photograph 1960-1980 (1992), p. 12. Proof, an exhibit which Desmarais originated at the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, assembled photographic works by 45 artists, including Cowin, who had lived and worked in Southern California between 1960 and 1980. Proof demonstrated how many works produced during this fertile era anticipated theories that Postmodernists later articulated.
4. Desmarais, p. 13.
5. DeDuve, Thierry, Kant After Duchamp (1996), p. 122.
6. Barthes, Roland, SIZ (1974), p. 216. This phrase recalls Frank Stella’s “what you see is what you see.”
7. Sircello, Guy, Mind & Art (1972), p. 239, Sircello demarcates showing from expressions and signs. “F shows in the expressions.” Thus, one need not verbally express one’s disappointment to show it.
8. Barthes, p. 216.
9. Tompkins, Calvin, Duchamp, a Biography (1996), Appendix, p. 510.
10. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, 1998.
11. Barthes, p. 171. In SIZ, Roland Barthes mentions that meaning typically moves away from the signified (meaning) into a sea of signifiers (sound-images), from a particular to a generality, in order to locate some profound truth (the still as evidence). Cowin’s opacity stems from her work’s moving in the opposite direction, when it resists translation.
12. Ibid., p. 174.
13. Marcel Duchamp, Notes from the White Box (1914).
14. Rorty, Richard, Objectivity, Relativity and Truth (1992), p. 2.
15. Plato, The Republic, Book X, p. 327.
16. Dana Asbury, 1983, quoted in Mark Johnstone, Four Photographers by Four Writers, “A Prospectus for Some Conditions, Some Criticisms and the Critical Condition of Eileen Cowin’s Work” (University of Colorado at Boulder, 1987), p. 8.
17. Ekman, Paul, “Movement in Expression of Emotion,” Explaining Emotions (ed. Amelie O. Rorty, 1980), p. 81.
18. Rey, Georges, “Functionalism and Emotions,” Ibid., p. 184.