Last year, in 2017, Anna Boothe and Nancy Cohen collaborated on a series of sculptures that were shown at the Philadelphia Art Alliance; the works shown owed a lot to the thangka, a type of Tibetan Buddhist painting that represents a Buddhist deity or an image taken from the Tibetan religious imaginary. Buddhist imagery has been a part of American thinking and making for more than two generations now, so Boothe and Cohen belong to a well-established tradition in contemporary American art. Their work, a subtle combination of materials and ideas, feeds the notion of a dialogue–both between the two artists and between the artists and the world, the subjective laboratory that makes up their domain. Buddhist art tends to demonstrate the benefits of loss of self, while contemporary art is often about personal assertion. Trying to merge the two is not without its difficulties! The merger is made more complex by the fact of the two artists’ collaboration, which presupposes a shared esthetic and preference for materials, but this in fact may not always be so.
Between Seeing and Knowing
Glass, resin, metal, monofilament
Courtesy of the Philadelphia International Airport Art Program
Boothe and Cohen build subtle structures whose accumulated energies link their efforts to feeling and thought that last because of the well-constructed quality of their art. The large wall of imagery that constitutes Between Seeing and Knowing (2017) offers mostly organic abstractions, but there are some mechanical-looking images as well–fragments of a divine machine! The randomness of the imagery attains a wholistic unity when looked at from a distance or over time. Boothe and Cohen are artists first and foremost; they have made it clear they are not religious seekers. But Buddhist principles can apply to their art: Buddhism is more about a process–an ongoing searching–than it is about achieving a specific religious insight, and the audience senses, on seeing this wall of discrete images, that the works are intended to be seen as artworks posessing a spiritual outlook. Petal Pose (2017) is overtly phallic–to the point of visual unease! It consists of a violently red tumescent head surrounded by a green stem and leaves. The image’s literalism disturbs a bit, but it also underscores the fact that the spirituality and natural imagery that Boothe and Cohen make use of can sustain very different points of view (sometimes eroticism can replace piety!). Buddhism’s sensitivity toward nature has always been very high, and the two artists make it evidently clear in their work.
The exquisite sculpture Unseen/Unknown (2017) consists of a small, white lotus flower flanked on either side by brown leaves, beneath which we see the mixture of a drawing and a sculpture in a neutrally tan color. The recognition of unknowing is always a part of any religious doctrine, and the lotus flower, so central to Buddhist thought and devotion, maintains an air of mystery. This piece, like the rest of the works made by Boothe and Cohen, is exquisite in its facture–as a group, the discrete sculptures meld and offer something larger than a small conglomerate of individual pieces. Having seen a Buddhist shrine in the countryside in Korea a number of years ago, I can vouch for the overcrowding of the sacred space with repetitive imageries. So the large number of discrete objects in this show play a role in which the entirety of experience is meant to be acknowledged–in the powerful landscape of the show’s totality.
Glass, metal, handmade paper
There is a larger question to be asked: how is this work contemporary art? It is pretty clear that the abundant use of metaphor found in the works argue for a new way of seeing, just as the cumulative effect of the many small works demonstrates the artists’ sly awareness of the many’s ability to become one in a sleight of hand that can only be considered currently available. The spiritual aspect of this work is more complicated than it would seem–religion is what you make of it, and the terms of this body of works do tend to address the individual imagination rather than the group’s. Additionally, the artists have made it clear that while the thangka influences their formal approach, the tenets of Buddhism are not being assiduously addressed in their art. But that does not mean the individual works of art are lacking in sincerity. The major difference in the works encountered here is that they are abstract, while the imagery of Buddhism is a mixture of the figurative–images of the Buddha–and the abstract–the design of the mandala. Yet this is a time now when claims are being made for contemporary art that cannot be sustained–at least in a spiritual sense. Indeed, in this body of work, the thangka works more effectively as a formal principle than a theological one.
Permutation Drawing I (2017), is a very beautiful gray-and-white monoprint with graphic signs of natural forms that are arranged in curving rows. It rings changes on basic curvilinear shapes, establishing a visual harmony not too easily established in a culture where abstraction is well known. The charm of the work also is not truly in keeping with the rough materialism of much of today’s art. Pollination (2017), displayed as a table piece at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, erotically displays two phallic forms, which reach out toward each other. One comes from colored pieces of glass, while the other is part of a piece of transparent glass. For this writer, the pieces underscore the libidinous forms of nature. Desire and spiritual matters both come together in the show. In the long run, what is most important about this body of work is its collaborative manufacture, its spiritual insight, and its interpretation of another culture. These things indicate an openness toward culture and art that invests Boothe and Cohen’s work with real dignity and insight. We are living in a time when depth is missing from culture, but the artists here are offering exactly that. We must be grateful for their efforts.
Essay by Jonathan Goodman