Jeff Cowen is one of those restless artists who is always challenging himself to do something new and different and better. When he fears he might be getting complacent, he picks up his entire studio and his life and moves to a new place just to shake things up. In the past 8 years he’s lived in New York, Paris, and now Berlin (and he's also accomplished unique bodies of work in Cuba, Romania, and rural areas of France and Spain). Each of those places has born creative fruit for him.

A one-man show at the A/34 Gallery in Barcelona this summer includes work from each of those periods (including a few earlier works that have never been exhibited before), but focuses mainly on new work — and there is a lot of it.

One of the most striking new works is a straight ahead portrait of a woman sitting in a chair (Eva, 2007). A plain looking woman, with her hair tied carelessly in a bun at the back of her head, turns to the side in full profile, serious but completely at ease. Arms crossed over her lap, she seems rooted, aloof, and completely real. And completely captivating.

I was talking with the Swiss art critic, Urs Albrecht, about this picture, and he said, “It’s difficult to relate this work to anything else. It’s not of a certain fashion. It’s really  outside everything I’ve seen in contemporary art. And somehow I think that any art that doesn’t deal with the beauty and ugliness and failure and love of human beings, after a certain time, is not so interesting.” He was clearly as stunned by this larger-than-life portrait as I was.

Walk to the next room and enter another mood.

In a playful and dizzying double mural titled Moana, Cowen applied his talents as a painter directly to the nude body of his model — and to the diagonal backdrop, and to the surface of the large prints. The result is a kind of op-art depth that breaks through the plane of the underlying photograph, like smoke rings in the air, or bubbles rising to the surface of a sleepy dream. It has an Alice-in-Wonderland giddiness about it.

When asked about this mural, Cowen said, “I hung the two big work prints on my wall and studied them for a year. They were driving me crazy because I knew there was a photograph there, but it just wasn’t happening.” While experimenting with some chemical marks on the surface of another print, he realized that the wet rings left by a large bottle could accentuate the surface tension. In the upside down pairing, it seems as if the model is falling out of the frame and floating and perpetually spinning into a swoon.

Then Cowen goes completely abstract (and camera-less) with Untitled Berlin II, a large piece that defies definition. Part photogram, part painterly brush strokes and smudges and chemical spills and stains. It shimmers and oscillates, pinned to a backdrop under glass.

These are just three of maybe 30 prints on display. See this work in person, if you can. Otherwise, look at the excellent exhibition catalog from the gallery.

 — Jim Casper