On Barbara E. Cohen’s “Venetian Slings”
By Susan Rand Brown

Much like an alchemist, Barbara E. Cohen is possessed with the ability to take something utilitarian that few see for its aesthetic implications – a vellum ping-pong ball, a woven rag pot holder, a humble, almost colorless slice of Asian cork –and transform the material in hand until what had been overlooked and unacknowledged is reborn into something otherworldly, beautiful and true.

This quest to understand and elevate the formal properties of the near-invisible has much in common with the work of the ancient mathematicians, who found essences in the circle and the square. In art, Cohen’s fidelity to the stripped-down has roots in the work of 20th century minimalists Agnes Martin and Sol Lewitt; she also admires Jean Dubuffet, whose black and white three-dimensional drawings, installed as sculpture on city streets, complete what were empty spaces.

Cohen’s newest series of drawings, paintings and sculptures, “Venetian Slings,” grew from the artist’s residency in Venice during the fall of 2011. As guest of the Emily Harvey Foundation, she traveled to this ancient city of canals inspired by the trailing patterns of boats and waterways under bridges and around islands. She was mesmerized by the appearance of straps, golden in the sunlight, hanging above the Fondamenta della Zattere in Venice’s Dorsoduro, which she describes as “a span of half-open ovals drifting from a thick gold armature.”

Intended for carrying gondolas and handmade crew boats in and out of waters for lifting to nearby docks for storage, these softly looping sculptural forms caught by the breeze became Cohen’s inspiration.

“In the heat of the day, the slings blow and glide in a gentle wind; majestic in their beauty, they are just waiting to be filled … to hold, as an act of grace."

“My earlier sculptural work was about embracing forms like boats, cradles and caskets; the sling also has the grace of holding, the mystery of open space being filled up and yet the sling remains open to the elements – it floats and falls into patterns of its own. This is much like my last two installation pieces, where drawings on vellum spheres, placed on a motorized conveyer belt, were set free, like molecules or the oceans, to endlessly recombine; or cut-down pieces of weightless Vietnamese cork, assembled to seem as though they are floating, or settling into grid-like patterns,” Cohen says. “It takes much relaxation to draw a single sling.”

Cohen’s drawings and paintings of Venetian slings transform what she witnessed hanging above the canals into their sculptural essences, more metaphor or Platonic form than tangible object built to contain the rounded bottom of a canal boat. Her paintings of these stripped-down shapes introduce a limited color palette and conjure images of oceans in all their surprising grandeur, variety and unpredictability. Sometimes the loops are pushed to the forefront, giddily riding the waves; at others they recede into a morning fog. Continue to watch Cohen’s website for new images: the artwork, like the artist, is known for pushing boundaries. There always are surprises ahead.