Lynne Cohen’s recent exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal1 presents much more than a display of captivating and masterful large-size photographs of interior spaces. At first glance, False Clues could be described as an imposing photographic project documenting ordinary interior spaces. However, the titles of the twenty-five chromogenic prints and fifteen gelatin-silver prints selected for the show (like those of most of her photographs) discourage any documentary connotation. This exhibition reaffirms that Cohen’s work is beyond documentary; it is about photography, art, and her distinctive and unfailing gaze at the details that compose the places she photographs. Additionally, it is about the idea of space itself.
Initially intended to highlight her latest work, the exhibition displays a selection of Cohen’s recent images punctuated with older works through an installation that avoids chronological sequencing in favour of formal and conceptual connections. Cohen’s photographs show public, semi-public, and private interiors – always in a state where there is no visible human presence – in which she sees material elements that are specific codes with a link to art history; reading them is made easier by the large size of the prints that show these interiors.
Cohen practised sculpture before deciding to focus on photographing interiors in the early 1970s. This influence is strong throughout her work, which is striking for its three-dimensional quality and monumental size; both have become emblematic of her photographic oeuvre. The spaces that Cohen meticulously frames may be banal and everyday at first glance, such as a classroom or a building lobby: they may also be private and reclusive, such as a firing range or a laboratory. Her precise framing, dead-on camera angles, and perfect command of technical details transform these interiors into arresting images – often photogenic – that explore the boundaries between found and built components. This creative process expresses Cohen’s fascination with the assemblage of elements that compose or decorate each of these places. However, she does not consider herself a documentary photographer, and her spaces are linked not to a documentary synthesis or topography of interior landscapes, but to what she is thinking,2 which results in photographs that draw the viewer beyond the surface into the illusion of the image. The places that she photographs, connoted as interior “ready-mades,”3 combine separate elements – a door frame, an electric outlet, or a light fixture, to name but a few – wherein fragments from the everyday are translated to found installations. As she writes in the show’s exhibiting catalogue, Untitled (Waves) (2003), “None of my places appear real. But, then again, not much appears real when you step back and take a look. . . . There is nearly always something I can point to, an off-centred light, plug or vent. I would like people to see things as if for the first time and notice how off they appear.”4 The exhibition layout for False Clues develops counter-clockwise; it is installed across three large adjoining spaces in the museum and culminates in a formally complex viewing experience. Cohen’s sizable photographs are elegantly framed and spaced to allow for discrete viewing of each image without interrupting the flow of the gallery installation. The series of colour prints is punctuated by strategically placed black-and-white images. I was captivated by a sequence of three images located around the midway point of the exhibition. This wall made me think of a Renaissance altarpiece: a Cohen triptych in which recurrent subjects in the artist’s oeuvre – such as a screen, a disquieting hallway, and an indoor shooting range – are individually represented in each picture.
In the centre, Untitled (Submarines) (2006) depicts a bright-yellow wall in an unidentified ceramic-tiled room decorated with a triad of black fabric cut-outs of submarines. Part of a doorway frame, on the photograph’s right edge, is counterbalanced by a trap door in the corner of the room on the opposite side of the image. As Cohen points out, the large submarine and two smaller submarines below it, in a tight group, evoke the idea of “family,” an iconic theme in modern photographic history, exemplified by the Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.5 The places of passage at either side of the picture are a salient referent to a dualism for “here and elsewhere” in the Canadian psyche that has been evident in Canadian photography since the 1950s;6 they also stimulate the visual flow with the two gelatin-silver photographs on either side.
On the right, Untitled (White Screen) (2005) depicts a white projection screen, centred in the photograph. The screen dominates a room in which the lateral walls are covered with camouflage netting and metal cabinets. The large, bright rectangle echoes the shiny reflection on the tiled yellow wall in the photograph beside it, whereas the surface of the screen, with its latent images, becomes a conceptual substitution for the light-sensitive photographic paper onto which the image is printed. The left-hand image of the triptych, Police Range (1990), is an earlier photograph and much more three-dimensional than the other two, giving the viewer a sense of being in the space that has been photographed. In a tunnel-like firing range, a couple of cartoonlike businessman figures blatantly staring at the camera serve as targets; targets and cartoon figures were recurrent themes in Western art in the 1960s and 1970s.7 The appearance of these figures in this secluded tunnel accentuates the psychological tension resulting from the absence of people in Cohen’s spaces that builds from one image to the next.
The conceptual agency in Cohen’s photographs, combined with her constant insistence on avoiding any precise identification for these locations, means that her interiors can be synthesized as spaces, rather than places. The notion of heterotopia is important here. In Michel Foucault’s conception, a heterotopia may be a single real place that juxtaposes several isolated spaces, penetrable yet not as freely accessible as a public place. The spas, police training academies, military training rooms, hotel lobbies, private men’s clubs, and other non-public or semi-private spaces that persistently appear in Cohen’s work are critical examples. In Foucault’s view, temporal heterotopias – such as museums – enclose in a single location objects from different periods and styles. “Heterotopia,” he writes, “has the power of juxtaposing in a single real place different spaces and locations that are incompatible with each other.”8 The spaces that Cohen exposes in her photographs become mises en abîme, for which the ultimate destination of the museum – a space within a place – anchors the images in False Clues in a realm that is layered with the materiality of the objects in her images and in art history. This exhibition demonstrates that Cohen’s command of photographic vocabulary and determined study of these interiors result in more than first meets the eye.
2 See Lynne Cohen, No Man’s Land: the Photography of Lynne Cohen / Ann Thomas (London: Thames and Hudson, 2001), p. 25.
3 See Ann Thomas, “Appropriating the Everyday,” in Lynne Cohen, No Man’s Land: the Photography
of Lynne Cohen / Ann Thomas (London: Thames and Hudson, 2001), pp. 11-12.
4 Lynne Cohen and François LeTourneux, Faux indices (Montreal: Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2013), p. 48.
5 Ibid., 63.
6 See Penny Cousineau-Levine, Faking Death: Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).
7 Iconic examples are Jasper Johns’s sculptural targets and Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art comic-stripfigures.
8 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 354.
Philippe Guillaume is an artist and photographer. In 2012, he completed an interdisciplinary MA involving photography and art history in Concordia University’s Special Individualized Program (SIP). His work combines walking, photography, and public spaces devoid of human presence. He is a member of the Canadian Photography History Research Group based in the Department of Art History at Concordia University.