In his latest show of all new work, titled The Lotus-Eaters, Jeff Cowen is exploring complicated ideas with repetition of images, variations on repetitions, double-takes, positives and negatives, organic growth and multiplicity of similar things that are each different and unique yet part of a species or sub-species. Repeating patterns of dots often arise, as do patterns of flowers, leaves, branches and weeds. We see eyes going astray, eyes open and closed, caught between wakefulness and dreaming, veils and shadows.
The artwork is abundant with markings: in the settings, on the models, markings on the surface of the print. Scratches, burns, spills, and bits of chaotic randomness flow out here and there over the print and into the edges. Sometimes the edges seem to have more information or gesture than the original photographic negative, hinting perhaps at a mutation of DNA in the evolution of photography. There is a violence here and melancholy, but also I think, a profound intuitive sense and understanding of what pumps so powerfully below the surface of things at all times.
This is a virtuoso performance, with straight ahead portraits that shimmer with the light of Vermeer or Rembrandt, and then the strange and bizarre, like the beautiful young nude with a wandering eye posing with such peace and ease in a field of high-grown weeds going to seed. Others seem like manic all-night bender craziness with painted bodies in the studio, headdresses of twigs acting out home-brewed rituals and rites.
Collages are perhaps his strongest point, making your eye bounce back and forth and all around, creating a multiple perspective visual space that is cinematic and cubist, timeless and completely modern.
These mural-size prints are more than a meter wide and almost twice as high. They hold a commanding presence in a room, dwarfing most everything around them. Repeated viewings reveal new rich, dense pleasures and exquisite surprises.
A handsome small catalog proves that these larger than life images hold up fairly well on the printed page (but they are much better when viewed in person). The catalog text is a bizarre French philosophical rant by André Labarthe, and probably because my French is so poor, I can make practically no sense of it whatsoever.
The title of this series and the show, The Lotus-Eaters, calls to mind (intentionally I am sure) those mythical slave-like inhabitants of tropical islands who were lulled into a perpetual state of not-unpleasant apathy (drugged, dulled, dreamy) without the ambition or inclination to change their situation.
Here is an excerpt from the Odyssey (Book IX, translated by Samuel Butler):
“I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”
Cowen continues to evolve as an artist-philosopher using photography as his foundation on which to build complex interrelated visions. The work is on display at Gallerie Seine 51 in Paris through December 16, 2006.
— Jim Casper