The transcendence of small things
I like the idea of crossing, and if the work is successful, it is as if, for a moment (like a cross where the horizontal and vertical cross at just one point), what was opposing transforms into unity. (Felipe Cohen)
One of Piet Mondrian's most memorable works is a small oil on canvas from 1932, tautologically titled Composition with Double Line and Yellow. The title's tautology is, however, limited to the theoretical: by only mentioning the line and the yellow, the artist leaves out the white, or rather, the whites. The use of the plural is necessary because the background on which, as in the vast majority of his compositions, straight, black lines cross, dividing the space into squares and rectangles, is not uniform, despite appearing to be so at first glance. The difference between the shades of white employed is almost imperceptible, but means that some of the rectangles created by the crossing of the black lines appear pure, in other words, not painted but "naturally" white, and these are the only ones that the observer feels authorised to consider as the piece's authentic background. It is well known that right from the start of his career Mondrian sought an ideal of purity and elevation through painting that, in its conception, was fundamental both to the artistic activity and to the deep philosophical and spiritual research that he carried out, including through his pictorial production. His experiments with minimal variations in shades of white, or in the thickness of a line, are central to this thinking and to his almost mystical relationship with the practice of painting, leading English painter Ben Nicholson to affirm, after his first visit to Mondrian's studio, that the "feeling in his studio must have been very like the feeling in one of those hermits’ caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws".
If works like Caminho [Path] (2006), A queda [The Fall] (2008) and others, where pure geometric shapes such as squares, rectangles and circles are juxtaposed with extreme precision, point to a possible relationship between Mondrian and Felipe Cohen, Nicholson's description suggests a communion that is likely less explicit, yet possibly more fascinating. In Cohen's sculptures and collages, his intervention in the materials employed is relatively minor, his control is, therefore, limited: despite the always impeccable quality of the finishing, in the majority of his works the materials are perfectly recognisable; that is, they retain their essential characteristics. Thus, the artist explicitly shows he is working with what comes to hand, and not building his universe from scratch. On the other hand, and especially as regards the sculptures, it is the "quality" of the material that becomes ontologically other when incorporated into the work, whilst the artist himself insinuates that this transformation has a mystic and spiritual dimension. Much in the same way that, for a variety of religions, nothing remains the same after the divine revelation, in Felipe Cohen's works the scale that defines the value of each material, and even that of each everyday object, is unexpectedly suspended: there is nothing in these works that attests to or presupposes that a gold ring has more value than a chunk of coal, that granite is more valuable than cardboard, or that a plastic bag cannot be worth as much as a block of marble. The artist has pointed out how, in several of his pieces, “the noble material is shown to be dependent on a more basic one to attain its volume”, but this distinction between noble and basic materials seems to belong to a moment before the creation of the work, precisely because once the materials, or individual objects, are juxtaposed in the piece, a new order is instilled, one in which the value of each one is entirely redefined. Exactly as, in Mondrian's paintings, the thickness of the line is decisive, despite the fact that the line itself could seem to merely delimit the rectangles and the squares, in Cohen's sculptures all the elements have the same importance. The deep, impenetrable black of the charcoal in Eclipse (2010) is as important to the overall balance of the work as the shine of the gold wedding band that encircles it. Whilst the elegant chalice from Anunciação [Annunciation] (2008) would be useless, incomprehensible and even invisible without the light bulb, as banal and common as it seems, that reaches down to it, imbued with all the symbolism conferred by the title.
In fact, if there is a hierarchy among the materials employed in Cohen's sculptures, it is not one that divides the nobles from the common, the short-lived from the eternals or the precious from the cheap, it is one that distinguishes between the light and the heavy. It is no accident that the fall, understood here more as a physical movement than as a metaphor for a specific religious event, is probably the most recurrent, real or metaphorical, act in his production. We have seen how Anunciação, which, in a way, symbolizes a contrary movement by alluding to an elevation, reveals itself through a fall, a descending movement. Even more direct is the installation Luz caída [Fallen Light] (2011), where the starting point is the notion of a solid light, one that descends and lands on the floor and elements that occupy the space as a snow, that is, as something possessing volume, colour and even temperature, rather than like a real light, one that is immaterial and intangible. An analogous movement animates the Janelas [Windows] (2009) series, where sheets of paper fall slowly (their speed is not, of course, explicit in the image, but imagined by the observer) from an undisturbed, blue sky. And the falling feeling, even if experienced here as a possibility, or perhaps a temptation, is suggested even more strongly in the series 5 abismos [5 Abysses] (2011) that, significantly, was conceived and exhibited for the first time together with Luz caída. Furthermore, the manner in which the shadow falls, solidifying as it does, underneath the cardboard boxes, satin ribbons, felt and envelopes of the Meio-dia [Midday] (2008-2010) series, seems to respond to the artist's desire to materialise, to make tangible an image, or even just an idea, which permeates a significant part of his production, at least since the aforementioned work whose title is precisely the fall (A queda). If, on one hand, this piece heralds future developments with a notable clarity, on the other, it is less univocal, more open to various interpretations, than those that follow, perhaps exactly because of its innovative character. What is most surprising, when comparing A queda with subsequent works, is the way the plastic straw in the centre of the glass stays upright, which would be impossible if the basalt were in fact a liquid, as its presence in a glass seems to suggest. In addition, the level of the basalt inside the straw is higher than that in the glass, as if someone, or something, were sucking it up, or letting it fall back down. Could this be the fall alluded to in the title? Or, perhaps, it is the fall of the basalt into the glass, or even that of the glass onto the base? Maybe the allusion is more subtle, hinting at the progressive dissolution, toward complete transparency, of the recipients: first the straw, which is lightly opaque, then the glass - transparent although visible -, and finally the air, invisible as it is, that surrounds the base?
The base in A queda, in fact, deserves a specific analysis. This disc of basalt that apparently forms a contradiction in terms, as it interrupts the "suspension of disbelief" by revealing the solidity of the same material that should be liquid in the glass, actually plays a more subtle role, even if it is a sui generis one in the artist's corpus: it makes this small piece declare itself to be, quite simply, a sculpture. The clear reference to Brancusi's bases, which were conceived to incorporate the actual sculptures, is not casual and reinforces the absolutely exceptional character of A queda: no other piece by Cohen, either before or since, has a base. Some of them may need support, for example a shelf or table, when not placed directly on the floor, but these supports are evidently separated from the work itself. And it is no accident, as noted earlier, that A queda is, without doubt, one of the works that can be read, in what can be defined as its narrative, less linearly, more openly according to our own interpretations. In other words, the sculpture does not blend into the world around it, as happens in examples where this narrative is more immediate, from the simple Copo [Glass] (2004), to other, apparently less literal pieces, such as Livro [Book] (2010). It could, perhaps, seem excessive to imbue the presence, or absence, of a base with such importance, but we have seen, right from the start, how apparently secondary elements can take on extraordinary significance in the production of certain artists. And it is precisely in the transcendence of the small things that populate Cohen's work, in the simplicity with which elements that, according to our experience, should be ordinary and banal, reveal themselves to be loaded with surprising importance, that lays the core of his poetics. Likewise, it is how the artist gifts us this epiphany that makes it long lasting, a discovery that we can carry with us far beyond the limits of the exhibition space: as has been said, the intervention to the materials is minimal; its nature continues unchanged from what we already know. Besides some mechanical actions, such as cutting, folding or joining, Cohen basically limits himself to juxtaposing the elements he appropriates, in the majority of cases creating a binary relationship. There is no need for more than that: what the approximation of the basalt showed us in a satin ribbon, and what a wooden clothes peg illuminated in the travertine marble, is already part of our knowledge, of our culture, of the way in which, as of today, we will see the world.
Two short films produced by Cohen reinforce this reading of his work: in O sonho de Constantino [Constantine's Dream] (made with Daniel Trench, in 2006), a large, white curtain is constantly picked up by the wind before falling back down, granting the observer only glimpses of the distant sea behind it. The allusion made by the title to the famous fresco by Piero della Francesca, in which a curtain is also present and where the real protagonist is, like here, the light, betrays the eminently pictorial references of this work. This is even more relevant considering that the artist's collages, which he would only begin to produce a few years later, are made in an almost literally analogous manner, that is, juxtaposing uniform fields of colour, such as those that are, in this case, comprised by the curtain, the sky and the sea. Furthermore, the film is very coherent with the rest of Cohen's production in the sense that it provides an authentic epiphany (and, again, the religious analogy is obligatory, for as we know, in emperor Constantine's dream he was visited by an angel that showed him the cross, thus leading him to convert to Christianity) through the approximation of extremely simple elements. Órbita [Orbit] (2007), in turn, registers the movements of pieces of litter in an anonymous corner of a parking lot as they are swept up by a whirlwind. Among these improvised planets, an orange, placed by the artist for the purpose of emphasizing movement through immobility, yet again operating on the principle of a simple juxtaposition/opposition. The inexplicable beauty of this movement, the way in which what should be an anonymous and banal moment becomes memorable, elevating itself to the level of a cosmic metaphor, not, of course, without a certain degree of irony, perfectly sums up Cohen's poetry. Irony, in fact, should be considered an essential component in the balance of these works, as demonstrated by two small sculptures, variations on a theme, produced some months apart: Catedral [Cathedral] (2009) and Catedral #2 [Cathedral No. 2] (2010). Despite the form suggesting the same aspiration to the sky that characterises cathedrals, it is clear that these small and humble pieces, born yet again from an unexpected combination (in this case, of a noble material with an ordinary object), carry a double meaning: on one hand, they refer to the verticality of gothic cathedrals and the ever surprising malleability of stone, even more so when shaped using rudimentary tools. But, on the other hand, there is no denying that, here, there is a physical presence, a truth about the material that rejects or, more simply, ignores any metaphysical belief: the role of travertine marble, for over two millennia, is simply to withstand the marks of time, whilst for the clothes peg, it just has to ensure clean clothes do not fall to the floor (again, the fall...), necessitating another wash. There remains only the doubt as to whether the mention of cathedrals is metaphorical or ironic: the fundamental issue is, probably, that the distance between the metaphor and irony is minimal: metaphors reveal something by relating something else, whilst irony reveals something by affirming its opposite. In both cases, as in the majority of Cohen's production, and perhaps that of Mondrian, too, what is really important takes place in the friction between two worlds, and the spark produced by this friction ends up illuminating the black, subtle, almost invisible line that separates and unites them. The line that seems to be there just to define where one rectangle ends and another begins and that, despite that, is what we keep looking at all the time.