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Beneath the Surface
By Kelly A. Murphy


Entering the studio of Nancy Cohen is like stepping into another world, where one is surrounded by gravity-defying arrangements of materials, from a block of cement floating on top of glass wheels to a hammock of glass spheres slung by translucent cords. One becomes simultaneously filled with fear and a desire to touch everything in order to understand how these sculptures have come into existence and how they maintain their space. On closer examination, it becomes clear that everything is not what it seems to be. The gritty cement block is embossed with a delicate pattern of lace, and the glass wheels are actually sturdy dinner plates. A seemingly precarious hammock is held together by monofilament that has been reinforced by strands crocheted together, and some of the spheres that appear to be heavy glass are actually made of lightweight, handmade paper. I first entered Cohenís world when I worked as her studio assistant in 2004. My experience with her has taught me to approach materials without fear or hesitation and to always look beneath the surface.

Nancy Cohenís solo exhibition at Kean University features wall sculpture, hanging sculpture, pedestal sculpture, and works on paper. The show begins with a large-scale installation, Perspectives on Salinity: River from Within, which fills the expansive windows of the Karl and Helen Burger Gallery. This major work was originally exhibited at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, New York, in celebration of the Hudson River. Cohen created her homage to the river by layering a series of large sheets of handmade abaca paper* from the floor to the ceiling of the gallery. Each sheet is pigmented in the actual tones of the river as observed by Cohen, from translucent celadon to deep opaque slate. The surface of each sheet bears the mark of the artist and her observations. Woven wire embedded in the paper recreates ripples of the water, as watermarks of the same shapes trace the passing current. Sheets of paper closer to the ground represent deeper waters, and their surfaces are encrusted with layers of crystallized salt. Lines of crocheted wire and monofilament hold the pieces together, referencing the delicate balance of salinity in the river. Suspended in the air, the pieces appear to be in motion, like the continuously moving river. Natural light flooding in from the gallery windows seeps through the installation, much as light filters through water, illuminating life below the surface.

Cohenís installation captures the life of the river, but it is also highly symbolic of human life. Beneath the surface of the river is an ecosystem of interacting organisms and physical elements on which the riverís survival depends. In the same way, the human body is dependent on the functioning of a complex set of organs and systems. In both a body of water and the human body, these components must work together in order for life to be sustained. There is both strength and vulnerability involved in maintaining this delicate balance, and, in creating her artwork, Cohen selects materials that demonstrate this tension.

This is particularly evident in Cohenís sculptures, which she constructs from an unusual combination of materials, including glass, resin, rubber, cement, metal, wire, monofilament, wax, and handmade paper. As varied as these materials are, they share common properties: they can be very fragile as well as incredibly strong, and each can be used as an underlying support structure or a protective outer encasing. Cohen is well versed in the dual nature of these materials and tests their sustainability with each sculpture she creates. This is evident when one looks at River with Her Throat Cut, which rests low on the wall and invites the viewer to peer beneath the surface and down into the sculpture. A delicate grid of glass tubes cascades down and interlocks with a paper-wrapped wire structure that spirals in and out of solid blocks of translucent rubber. Cohen uses the transparency of the materials to create visual layers, provoking the viewer to keep looking beyond the surface. In this sculpture, one finds an ethereal gold wire woven into a pattern of circles that is captured in the depth of the rubber and then suddenly released. The wire flows freely, perhaps like blood from a wound, yet it rushes forward with the life force of a river.

Cohen was initially trained in ceramics at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and shestudied sculpture as a graduate student at Columbia University. Later in her career, she abandoned clay and began creating mixed-media sculpture from found objects, using techniques rooted in craft. Cohen reenergized the domestic processes of weaving and crocheting by using them to construct large-scale sculptures from such industrial materials as rubber hose and electric cable. Although she still works with some found objects, she is currently using techniques such as slumping and fusing glass, and she casts paper, cement, or resin to fabricate original forms to be used as parts of her sculpture. She assembles the pieces in an intuitive process that transforms the parts into a whole and then works back into the sculpture, repeating shapes, adding layers, and breathing new life into them. Although Cohen no longer works with clay, she uses similar methods in her approach to materials, from wrapping slabs of wet paper around an armature, to slipping and scoring paper pulp and making molds to cast and fuse shapes.

The shapes and forms in Cohenís sculptures further echo the structure and repetition Found in nature and the body. In P(n, k) [combinatoric], Cohen has designed her own molecules by creating a mother mold and then repeating the shape in a variety of materials, including resin, cement, and glass. Test tubes, piano keys, and springs emerge from the shapes and carry the molecules as they increase in numbers across the wall. The title of the work refers to the branch of mathematics that focuses on countable discrete structures. Each of the molecules reflects the individual attention of the artist, who has brought them to life and presents the viewer with a glimpse into an active Petri dish. The persistence and resilience of nature and human life are present in this and in each of Cohenís artworks. The titles of several of Cohenís sculptures in this exhibition also reference relatively complex ideas of survival that go beyond physical composition and explore the structure of emotions, relationships, and memory. These works often incorporate a personal object from the artistíspast, such as her grandmotherís purse or the decorative beaded flowers that Cohenís mothermade when the artist was a child. Couple is composed of two interlocking shapes suspended in embrace. The underlying beaded structure on one of the figures is left exposed, while the other leans upon her partner, wrapped in a thick skin of handmade abaca paper, a fiber known for its transparency and strength. Both figures become dependent on each other for stability, in much the same way a couple relies on each otherís strengths and shields each otherís weaknesses.

Drawings included in the exhibition are certainly not drawings in the usual sense. Whereas a traditional drawing records the marks of the artist, Cohen allows her drawing materials to become a participant in the process. Often Cohen creates a work on paper as a response to a sculpture, using the same or similar materials, echoing the shapes and the structure. Graphite and charcoal are replaced by wire, paper pulp, and salt. Cohen begins drawings such as Undertow with wet handmade paper, and she manipulates the materials using elements of control and chance. Cohen embeds wire inclusions between two sheets of handmade paper and builds additional layers on the surface with paper pulp and salt. As the paper dries, the wire and salt react, leaving trails of rust and crystallization that continue to transform the surface. The paper also shrinks and strengthens in the drying process and, like the shedding of a skin, becomes a remnant of Cohenís experience with the materials.

Just as life is continuously in motion, Cohen fluidly moves from one idea to the next, allowing materials to guide her along the way as she transforms them into unexpected works of art. The exhibition at Kean University challenges viewers to enter Cohenís world and look beneath the surface and at themselves, with each piece imploring us to recognize the fragility of the world around us and the endurance of the human spirit.

*Abaca, which is similar to the banana plant, is native to the Philippines. The fiber of the abaca plant is very strong and used to produce paper and textiles.

Kelly A. Murphy is a student in the Masters of Art Education program at Kean University. She worked with Nancy Cohen in her studio and at Dieu Donnť Papermill in New York City from 2004 to 2005. She is currently a graduate assistant to Neil Tetkowski, Director of Kean University Galleries.