I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing – the contingent way that images arrive in the work – lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.
- William Kentridge, South African filmmaker and installation artist.
The simplicity of circles and squares, either free-floating or patterned in grid-like formation, has remained, over a forty-year creative evolution, the central image anchoring my work in drawing, painting, sculpting, and, most recently, installation. The inner eye remembers what it first looks upon. I grew up in a family of Eastern European Jews transplanted to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. In the distance I could see the landscape created by Amish farmers who still hand-plowed their fields, leaving geometric marks separating rows of grass and grain. My grandfather and then my father earned a livelihood making garments for these traditional farmers, who in their dress code kept faithful to fabrics of blacks and whites and a spectrum of grays. Quilters working in community houses laid grid-like patterns, but in oranges, yellows, purples: saturated blocks of color that I later expressed in my painting.
Closer to home were boxes and racks stacked with grid-like patterns of bonnets, hats and sewing supplies that formed the interior of my father’s 12,000 square foot warehouse. These visual patterns coalesced to form an inner rhythm in me. My sculpture grew out of a tactile need to respond to and maintain the geometric squares and circles and the neutral shades of the Amish code.
I started with a cork-like substance, Sesbania, common in Vietnam in 1996. Working with material from this small country, where I lived briefly and whose history of pain can never be erased, I sunk my paring knife down into the core of the cork. Going further into Sesbania’s interior, I sliced its core into small circles, and carved its exterior into soft squares. The Zen-like discipline of hand cutting, stacking and gluing thousands of these almost weightless objects was followed by their transformation: some combined to become towers, others became boulders that seemed to march in a row; and an eight-foot cork sphere needed to be suspended in air.
The Provincetown Art Association and Museum exhibited a retrospective sampling of these fanciful yet still minimal sculptures in the fall of 2007. This was the capstone of a decade’s artwork. Four months later, my work was suddenly interrupted when my partner was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
What followed was a prolonged period of anxiety and anguish. Using graphite pencils (and later, permanent ink) to make marks on a surface as abundant and as yielding as the Vietnamese cork had been, I turned my attention to writing and drawing my various recollections on ping-pong balls. The surface has the character of translucent treated vellum and, being a sphere, has neither a beginning nor end. When illuminated from behind, their ethereal quality seemed to mimic my emotional state, mapping my nervous system.
Possessed, I drew continuous lines on hundreds of these faceless shapes with what felt like an unstoppable intensity. Every day there was a new set of these round vellum balls, inviting new experiments with abstract lines (zigzags, dots, loops, scribbles). The diverse grades of graphite or ink, and the resultant variety of textures and tones, thin lines, thick lines, wiry fuzzy lines, became the barometer of my moods, a compendium of spontaneous drawing on a circular shape.
After scribbling on each surface and accumulating hundreds of balls, I wanted to see the balls in perpetual motion: flowing and separating, forming endless combinations, as spontaneous as was their individual creation. This, and the loss of my partner – loss and what follows loss – is the genesis of the piece
I ordered a ten-foot-long conveyor belt from the Midwest, and constructed a 4' x 4' metal container to house the balls. A timed motor was designed to set the balls in motion: the ping-pong balls with their individual markings morphed into a free-form drawing in motion, whose details constantly shifted. The movement of the lines excites me, as the vellum spheres jostle one another, their markings playing hide and seek, while the total surface pattern of the grid shifts ever so slightly.
Watching the ping-pong balls define and redefine their status within the closed space created by a square container is a reminder that nothing is permanent: like molecules in nature, the ping-pong balls are in constant flux, made and remade as their environment changes.
Related 6' x 6' drawings and smaller sculptures accompany Moving On.
Barbara E. Cohen
Throughout my twenty-five year art career, I have worked with 35mm film alongside my abstract painting and sculpture. Within the past ten years, I have been working on abstract methods to create photographic images that appear painterly and at the same time hold up as photographs. Using SX 70 and 600 Plus Polaroid film, I manipulate the images I photograph as the film is developing, thus creating abstract effects with line. I push the image further by oil painting onto the Polaroid surface. The combination of the line drawn with a pointed instrument which changes the surface of the photograph and loosely oil painting over selected areas of the picture allows for an original multi-image.
When I first started this process, I was doing self-portraits. Friends started asking me to do portraits of them and I began the business of 'Art in Your Face'. Later I started to paint historical towns, landscapes and commonplace objects which became cards and a means to support my painting and sculpture. My first book of painted Polaroids, called Dog in the Dunes, published in 1998 by Andrews McMeel, is a series of forty painted Polaroids of my black Labrador during an artist residency in a dune shack on Cape Cod. Provincetown East West, published by University Press of New England in May of 2002, is my second book depicting the seaside fishing village and artist colony of Provincetown. I have been working on a book of New York City in the same spirit.
Fields Publishing has republished Dog in the Dunes, as Dog in the Dunes Revisited in the spring of 2005. Fields Publishing is based in Provincetown, MA, the hometown of Dog in the Dunes. This new printing is an expanded addition of painted Polaroids and larger in size from the original.
New York Love Affair, published by Fields Publishing, May 2010, is a photographic ode to a world-class city, the everyday yet oft-remembered sights of the Big Apple appear through the lens of manipulated, painted Polaroids.