You wouldn’t likely guess that sculptor Jennifer Cohen studied dance at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Her solo debut at White Columns is filled with conspicuously handmade objects, riddled with quirks and gaffs. Cohen deftly avoids any hackneyed use of her training. There is no prim purity in image, form or surface and no obvious heroics displayed, just real courage as she engages in close combat with elegance and myth. The show is an insider’s take on the body aspiring to something magical, transformative.
This collection of seemingly naive works is the result of a keenly intelligent ongoing experiment. Cohen uses the Harlequin, a professional buffoon of sorts, an archetypal motif used by Balanchine, as her constant. Reducing the commedia del arte character to the formal sign of its diamond-patterned attire, Cohen tracks its shifting referential possibilities, recombining formal elements among a closed set of variables.
Upon entering Cohen’s “White Room 2,” we encounter “Nijinsky’s Leg,” 2005, uneasily clad in the familiar diamond shapes. This odd, misshapen club is hardly a leg and is difficult to perceive as Nijinsky’s. Its dingy gray pallor of self-hardening clay and tiny, theater gel crown of viscera wipe out whatever buffoonery we might have associated with the subject.
In “Reins,” the only drawing in the show, Cohen reduces the repeating angular pattern into two thin strips that run off the page from top to bottom. Guided by the title, one reads the simple image as braided leather straps and as a shifting and contorted figure/ground relationship when the title’s lesser-used meaning––loins, lower back––comes to mind.
“Barre,” 2004, another dance reference, is just that, fixed to the wall at an appropriate height, but covered again in a clay-skin pattern. This time the diamonds have morphed into scales, turning our Harlequin into a snake. Charming comes to mind, but not necessarily in the sense of delightful.
“Birth of a Harlequin,”2004 brings Nijinsky’s leg back to its origin. By creating a plausible formal evolution of the character’s “skin,” Cohen at once articulates the charm and malevolence of the Harlequin in the form of a coiled cobra. Its head is blunted. And its eyes? Perhaps they among a handful of homegrown crystals, humble surrogate diamonds, glistening on the floor.
This work wears neither its beauty nor its intelligence on its sleeve. It’s a refreshing reminder that acquiring greatness is an open-ended experiment.