The difference between photo-realism and the realism of someone like Courbet, for instance, involves the existence of the camera. Instead of responding to the camera with contemptuous attempts to do what the camera could not, photo-realistic painters have acknowledged that the camera and photography do, indeed, exist, that technological reproductions of reality have practically gained ascendancy over direct encounters with reality and that photography can be a starting point in the process of realistic painting. In photo-realism the painter deliberately removes him/herself from a putatively direct experience with ‘reality', starts with the validation and permanence of reality a photograph implies and then works to make this representation become hyper-real on canvas.
Kim Cogan contributes a meaningful and thought-provoking twist to the photo-realist tradition at Arcadia Contemporary in Lower Manhattan, as he uses photography in this show to help “reconstruct how the mind remembers”. In the notes for the show Cogan writes, “By combining old photographs with new ones, I wanted to make a complete image, very similar to how you might construct a memory in your head.” So, if we look carefully at his painting ‘Dollhouse’, we see that the dollhouse is, in fact, the house where Cogan himself was raised and not the toy dollhouse you might expect.
A dollhouse is, of course, a child’s idealized home in which fictional stories and fantasies can be played out, so the implication might be that consequent life experience and analysis of our past, along with feelings as diverse as nostalgia or resentment, can completely recast and replace a true or accurate memory with what we now believe happened or believe should have happened. Much personal memory, especially in regard to childhood, is probably vitiated in this way. Whereas photo-realism is often great at capturing or revealing a sense of transience or ephemerality, by super-realistically depicting one particular place at one particular time in the past, Cogan seems to want to go a little further and deal with emotions brought about reflecting on the past and why these emotions occur and even how these emotions can change our memories. The emotional nature of the work is reflected in the slightly more expressionistic style than one has seen from Cogan in the past.
In many of Cogan’s cityscapes, throughout his career, we see buildings in the dead of night which convey a sense of deep tranquility and restfulness along with the awareness that this peace will not last and those inside will be compelled to frantically engage again in the stresses and pressures of their daily lives. This temporary cessation of coerced activity seems the best we can ever hope for, yet it becomes the basis for the narratives, metaphors and hope we tend to create for permanent or long-lasting peace in our lives. The feeling of tranquility engendered by Cogan’s night cityscapes is mirrored somewhat in the family photo paintings. By using family photography of the distant past Cogan presents images which evoke feelings of a security, warmth and stability all of us were forced at one point to leave but which we now wish to replicate.
This narrative of once experienced perfect security, perfect family life and perfect stability, and the feelings engendered by it, seems, however, only experienced in its fullness upon reflection and was probably never felt to that intensity at the given time. The photo presents a tranquility existing now which we did not recognize and which perhaps did not even exist in the past. This emotional state is what infuses our memories of home-life from the past with such value and creates such a longing for the past. The paintings derived from these photos further, therefore, contain the horror of not being able to reclaim that (possibly fictitious) past.
The show closes soon, October 4th, so if you can get a chance to see Cogan’s arresting and provocative paintings in person, please drop by Arcadia Contemporary at 51 Greene Street.