by Jody Zellen
(The Armory Center of the Arts, Pasadena) Twenty-seven years of work by the photographer/video artist Eileen Cowin is presented in the retrospective exhibition Still (and all). Cowin makes photographic works that tell stories both through images and through image/text relationships. In looking at how her work has developed over the years, it becomes evident that she has moved from staging photographic tableaux to exploring how narrative is created. This is accomplished through the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate images that include single objects or focus on an expression. Cowin has also begun to implement video and video projection into her works, forming even more complex relationships.
In I'll Give You Something To Cry About , she presents a grid of twelve large color photographs. Here fragments and gestures--faces, a bloody thorn, a handful of letters--begin to tell a story. The title suggests one reading and the photographs, seen as individual images as well as in relation to one another, describe a possible scenario. Cowin deliberately leaves gaps. She does not tell us the whole story. We must read between the lines (or the images) to ascertain meaning.
Cowin is a master of her medium. She is in total control and leaves nothing to chance. Even if an image looks candid she hints that it is staged, often leaving the evidence--lights, camera, tripod--in the photograph. Cowin's work explores the moments in between. She is as interested in the moment the camera records as what might have happened offstage. She constructs narratives either within a single image or across multiple frames that explore these ambiguities.
In Family Docudrama [1980-83] she photographed her husband, twin sister and step children, creating an intriguing and open-ended narrative. Here lovers embrace, dance, confront themselves and act out their parental duties aware, but unfazed that these actions are being performed for the camera. As always, an emotionally charged situation is portrayed. She is particularly interested in the relationship between men and women, although in a number of works individuals also seem to be battling their own demons.
After spending a number of years exploring what the still image, both alone and in sequence could communicate, Cowin has begun to experiment with video. At first she created video images that appeared to be still. In A Form of Ecstasy  she presents four black and white back-lit images in a row, all the same size. It takes some time to realize that one is a moving image, a projected video, juxtaposed against three still photographs. Reading from left to right within the darkened space you see a photograph of a pen resting on an almost empty notebook. The next image is a close-up of a woman's lips. The third a blurry frame from a TV picturing clouds and a field, and the fourth is an image of stuffed owls. Upon close examination you will notice the woman's lips move ever so slightly. Here Cowin uses the video camera not to create narrative, but to create the illusion of immobility.
Likewise in It goes Without Saying  two projected images meet in the corner of the room. One image depicts a man's face in close-up who slowly turns from back to front and appears to blow a kiss. In the other, a woman struggles to remove a piece of adhesive from her shoulder. A sound track loops. You hear, in a tone barely above a whisper, "We'll let's see. . .I am afraid of looking stupid, I am afraid of your anger, I am very afraid of pain . . .", etc. In this moving piece Cowin uses the same strategies she employs in her still work, yet by adding both movement and sound, she is able to work with more layers to evoke a complex range of emotions.
Works from the 1970's are interspersed alongside work from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The decision not to arrange the works chronologically emphasizes the thematic consistencies in the work, rather than tracing their linear progression. Cowin has had an impressive career and each selection here, whether an individual photograph, a sequence of images or a video installation, marks an important development in her work. She manipulates the conventions of photography, film, and video to tell a different kind of story--one that explores where truth and fiction merge, yet presents no conclusions. Cowin's work provokes. And it is up to us to piece together the elements, the clues and the situations and come to terms with our own, similar emotions.
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