How should one approach Eileen Cowin's black-and-white photograph "Untitled (POV -- Shoes)," in which the pictorial point of view really is that of a pair of shoes?
Actually, there is a person wearing that pair of shoes, but the person is only seen from the pants cuffs down. Moreover, the person is standing on a ledge at the lower right corner of the photograph. Below is a deep black void. Over toward the left side of that void, though, is a man whose white shirt and tie make him seem a 9-to-5er. From the high perspective of those shoes, we can't see much more than the top of this second figure's head. But his arms are tensed outward and he seems to be moving as if with concern.
What is the relationship between these two figures? Not just the interpersonal relationship, mind you, but the spatial relationship? It's difficult to gauge distances in such a composition. Indeed, flipping a reproduction of this photograph around, one can almost justify hanging it upside down or sideways. You can at least mentally flip that image as it hangs on the gallery wall.
Cowin has two of her large-scale photographs included in a group exhibit of prints and photographs entitled "Large Works on Paper" in the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of Maryland Baltimore County through Nov. 30. Large seems to be the operative word in another regard, too, because the show includes work by these large figures in the contemporary art world: Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Vito Acconci, Richard Bosman, Cowin, Al Held, Julian Schnabel and Chuck Close.
It may seem hopelessly glib to mention that Cowin herself is rather small in size, but there, it's said. The photographer has been in Baltimore this week to speak at UMBC and the Maryland Institute College of Art. She's swinging through town for the first time, but her work has preceded her in the area. She was represented in the influential 1989 group exhibit "The Photography of Invention: American Pictures of the Eighties" at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, and was also included in a recent group show at the G.H. Dalsheimer Gallery in Baltimore. Also, her work is in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Like some of the other photographers in that "Photography of Invention" exhibit -- Cindy Sherman and Sandy Skoglund, for instance -- Cowin relies on the venerable painterly device of the tableaux vivant in her painting-sized photographs. These photographers, in other words, construct a simulated little world within the confines of the studio and then photograph it as a frozen moment in time. Besides the highly self-conscious artifice that is often accentuated through dramatic lighting and deeply saturated Cibachrome colors, there are recurring images such as the telephone and the TV set that serve as reminders of how our experiences are mediated by the media.
Not that these photographers all create in identical fashion after a round of conference calls, but what gives?
"I think things come in waves. There are things political and in the media that affect us all," Cowin said during an interview at UMBC. "I do think things feed on each other."
As for the preference for creating mini-environments to be photographed in the studio, she recalls photographer Duane Michals, joking that every inch of the world had already been photographed and so studio-made arrangements for the camera seemed the next step.
The staged poses of the figures in her photographs and the ambiguity of their possible relationships may lead to a cool response from some viewers. Cowin attributes this to the fact that folks "are used to looking at pictures of people they care about."
Cowin also shoots people she cares about, but in such a way that one wouldn't know it looking at the photograph. In fact, the "real people enacting fictive events" in her earlier work were most often herself, her husband and her twin sister. One can imagine various scenarios looking at such photos, but one does not come away feeling one knows this California-based artist and her family any better.
Her whole intent in this deliberately cool work is to present scenes of family or other interpersonal conflict that arouse our curiosity without quite satisfying it. She says these intentionally ambiguous images are meant to "blur the easy distinction people make between separating things into [categories of] good and evil."
Another way of explaining her approach, she adds, is that "it's like Alfred Hitchcock meeting [surrealist painter] Magritte."