“Lynne Cohen: Occupied Territory” at Stephen Daiter Gallery
Cohen’s signature photographs of empty rooms were taken between 1972–89.
Looking at Lynne Cohen’s artfully composed photographs of uninhabited interior spaces, it’s hard to believe the artist didn’t build these stage set–like scenes herself. But the works in “Occupied Territory” capture everyday rooms used by ordinary people—who, eerily, never appear in the photos themselves. It’s as if a neutron bomb had vaporized the buildings’ residents and left the interiors intact yet empty.
Taken from 1972–89, these black-and-white photographs are masterful formal compositions of inanimate objects. The receding lines of ceiling grids and floor tiles in photos such as Employment Office (1977) and Eagle Bar Room (1973) recall the visual tricks used in early Italian Renaissance perspective paintings. They give Cohen’s photographs a stable, balanced, even classic quality.
But whereas Renaissance paintings of interiors often feature windows looking onto landscapes, the Montreal-based artist captures only representations of the outdoors, like the skyline photomural in “The Big Apple” Room. The Crossroads Motel (1979). These fake views heighten the artificiality of the man-made spaces and hint at modern humans’ disconnection from the natural, outdoor world.
Cohen allows representations of the human form to sneak into some photographs. The most intriguing appears in Laboratory (1984). A full-scale wire outline of an early hominid appears to stroll through a research lab, mimicking a painted stick figure walking across the lab’s back wall, which evokes Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Computer consoles and scientific instruments are poised to measure the biomechanics of bipedalism. In this image, art and science come together to question the definition of “humanness” within an inhuman, claustrophobic space. Yet Cohen brings a measure of humanity—and even a touch of humor—to this beautifully rendered work of art.