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Home >> publicity >> Layers of Identity,by Galia Bar-Or 2003

Layers of Identity

On the Oeuvre of Mirit Cohen-Casp

By:Galia Bar-Or

Mirit Cohen-Caspi, for 20 years now, has created works in so many diverse media that one might imagine that the different chapters of her oeuvre had been created by a number of artists, not just one. But a deeper contemplation of the entire oeuvre reveals the consistent backbone underlying the various fields that engage her, in drawing, painting, sculpture, incorporation of text, found material, and digital work. In all her works we find the human figure, explicit or concealed, and transformations of the figure by means of disassembling, assembling and hybridizing into organic, technological, and design components. In her engagement with the human figure, beginning with her painting and her sculpture in the early ’80s, the fundamental question upon which her total oeuvre is based. Its essential interest is in the character of the affinity existing between structure and representation, between inner and outer essence, between physical sensation and image. These are conceptual questions, and they have a reflexive aspect (discussing artistic practice itself) – wondering about the affinity between structure and representation is connected with the meaning of the relations between a source and its derivative in art, the elusive space between “art” and “nature” or “man”. The conceptual context is of the essence for an understanding of Mirit Cohen-Caspi’s works, and it is also central in the works that have the assiduous character of manual work.
Already in her first works, in the mid-’80s, the human figure appeared in a work composed of various units simultaneously – fragments that look like “skin” or an imprint of a network of lines that is used for personal identification (in fingerprints or handprints), schematic drawing of figures taken from a photograph, projection of “sensitive” spatial, linear drawing over the surface of the painting. The structure was quite complex and included geometrical units, schematic units, units of squares (see reproduction on p. 4) in a mosaic of diverse art “languages:, techniques that represent various genres, a combination that includes cultural and historical contexts.
From painting and drawing, Cohen-Caspi moved on, in the mid-’80s, to sculpture, to work that was focused, direct and distinctive, both in its inner image and in its character. The first sculptural works conducted a dialogue with Minimalist sculpture (like that of Donald Judd), but preserved a character and dynamics of ludic activity that incorporates elements of humor and absurdity. Mirit Cohen-Caspi did not give thematic titles to her sculptural works, and did not present them explicitly as “figures”. The works’ titles remained laconic, concrete and technical. The sculpture Wooden Blocks (1986, see p. 5) is actually a tower with a height of a relatively tall person (180 cm.), made of wooden blocks of different sizes that look as though they were collected from previous uses, not made originally for the purpose of the sculpture. The human figure is indicated in the whole and in the details, in the relatively broadened base (like the sole of a foot) or a narrow central link (like a “neck”). This kind of direct and basic sculpture distinctively evokes the connection between structure (questions of load, equilibrium, material, placing) and representation of a human figure standing erect on a horizontal plane, a floor that is a landscape.
In 1988, Mirit Cohen-Caspi’s sculptures grew to gigantic sizes. They no longer stood up to their full height, but were bowed, folded and spread out in relation to the display space, to the height and area of the gallery, like a crane composed of parts, with its limbs filling the space. A figure that is a Crane (1988, see p. 7) was planned in a work that looks somewhat engineered, with an affinity to the work of tradesmen such as carpenters or mechanics. The sculpture was no longer composed of a combination of found materials; it was made of modular wooden units that were joined together by means of threaded rods and rough nuts, and stabilized by means of aluminum pipes. Crane was made for a specific space, the Meimad Katan Gallery in Tel Aviv. The sculpture was built in such a way that it was possible to alter it and adpat it to the various dimensions of the gallery space. In the show as Meimad Katan, the sculpture’s “neck” touched the gallery ceiling (height: 220 cm., length: 500 cm.), the large “hand” rested on the gallery floor, and its long “fingers” were spread out like a fan, to serve as a secondary base beside the base, the sculpture’s foot. From here on the parts of the sculpture received a distinctive functionality, as a combination that enables movement, power, lifting ability, and flexibility to adapt itself to the required “task”. The size of the sculpture was augmented by its placement in the small space, and it seemed that if the sculpture were extended to its full height it would burst beyond the framework of the room, like Alice who grew big all at once, her huge head bursting through the ceiling and the roof. The functional-industrial character of the wooden sculptures from the late ’80s did not dim the fantastic and perhaps archaic character of the works. The futuristic element, of a kind of human machine, was permeated by a legendary element, or perhaps an ancient memory of primeval creatures that were dominant in the era before man, charged with humor, anxiety – technological, but crossing boundaries of eras.
The works in large dimensions – of the work itself and of the display space – later developed into small-scale sculpture. For example: a box that is a kind of miniature architectural organism, inside which glowed a “heart”, a small glass ball gleaming in a green light (see p. 11). In this series too the artist did not give the works thematic titles, limiting herself to noting the basic information – materials, year, size. In the works of this series (1989-1991), which are among the most introverted and intimate that Mirit Cohen-Caspi has created, the monumental, now reduced in size, became an item of furniture, a letterbox, a secret drawer or, perhaps, a trap. One was able to peep into the sculpture’s inner space through a narrow slit from a close and personal point of view of discovery and concealment, a closeness that did not solve the enigma of the affinity between the interior and the exterior. As at a sorcerer’s touch, the simple everyday materials – pine, plywood, planed but not painted, and the little glass ball – turned into conductors of magic, a minimalistic sculpture, and a space for intimate transformation.
The “figure” was relevant to the works of this series too. We can detect this in the sculpture Column Casing (1990, see p13), which is exceptional in its size among the “Box” works – 280 cm. Like Wooden Blocks from 1986, this sculpture too stood like a vertical that has been stripped of every depictive element, but the vertical structure and the scale led to the interpretation of a column that is also a standing “figure”. The sculpture, simple and functional, was made like a box of white pine wood that serves as self-packaging for collapsible legs, that open to it like a stronghold. Like the “Crane” works, this sculpture can be spread out, adjusted and folded, but in this case it can also be closed. Its limbs fit into the box, it contains and is contained and, finally, is enclosed inside itself a kept in a horizontal position, like a figure that has itself turned into a sarcophagus.
The later works from “The Boxes” series were shown in 1991 at the Artists’ Studios Gallery in Tel Aviv, in an exhibition that constituted a kind of summation of a protracted phase of work, and that gave Mirit Cohen-Caspi an opportunity to grapple once again with installing her work in an indoor space (see p. 14). The work in the complex space of this gallery, with its two levels, engaged with the relations between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional – drawing on layered synthetic gauzes, hung in layers, one behind the other, and sculpture that presents interior planes that are partly concealed from the eye (boxes). A large floor work, composed of, inter alia, a round painting and a glass surface, created a state of simultaneous viewing of the single object and of the unusual gallery space reflected in it. By means of the exhibition’s structure, Mirit Cohen-Caspi focused central questions touching on spatial issues, such as the affinity between details and the space, or the reflection of the “macro” in the “micro”.
It may be said that this exhibition launched the development of the catalogue-box works, which involved a new kind of integration of the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional in the artist’s work. The box (published and shown at an exhibition at the Tova Osman Gallery and in an installation in Rothschild boulevard in Tel Aviv, 1994) contained chapters from her life as an artist, which had been compiled eclectically and put together without any hierarchy – photographs, texts that had been written about her works, information, sayings, and also contexts that refer to magic and fate, such as cards or palmistry. Moreover, the work on the catalogue-box was a first attempt at using digital technology in an art work, a milestone in Mirit Cohen-Caspi’s thinking and in the overall course of her work.
If, at the outset of Mirit Cohen-Caspi’s path, work with the computer provided a cheap and accessible solution for printing images and textures, in the mid-’90s it became a conductor of a layered discussion on questions of structure and representation, interior and exterior, “feminine” and “masculine”, nature and culture. In an early painting, from 1985, Mirit Cohen-Caspi drew the web of skin lines on the palm of the hand (see p. 4). Similarly to this, her first computer work (a catalogue-box), on “cards”, was a many-layered structure that as-it-were reflected an “archeology” of the body. The computer enabled Mirit Cohen-Caspi to engage with additional dimensions to those she had treated in the past with conventional means. We will recall that she had shown drawings on synthetic gauzes hung one behind the other and reflecting one another, layers upon layers (The Artists’ Studios, 1991). The digital work gave works such as these a new context and a new perspective. The work with the computer opened up fascinating channels on questions that Mirit Cohen-Caspi had engaged with since the outset of her path and oriented her to concentration on her inner world. At the same time, experiences from life seeped into the art works – giving birth, motherhood, and increasing awareness of the feminine discourse, of its contexts in art and its avenues of action. Mirit Cohen-Caspi developed a new language that incorporates digital printing into works of sculpture in soft materials, found objects and natural materials. If in the ’80s she engaged in sculpture with an affinity to industrial work, to carpentry, to mechanical tools, such as a crane, ten years later what became relevant were materials and techniques identified with “feminine work” – weaving, knitting, hair, and assimilations of a long tradition of manual work into contemporary technology. From here on she turned to enigmatic, sensual, biomorphic sites, in which the masculine and the feminine seeped into one another.
In the first works in this series of computer works (1996-1997) the artist incorporated digital printing in fragments, like a texture of a man’s navel area, inserted as an enigmatic focal point that simultaneously arouses both attraction and repulsion. Furthermore, the digital printing of texts shifted the sculptural work into a new and ambiguous context that is outside standard language. The spelling of “dear balak” in English letters shifted a curse or warning taken from the Arabic language to another layer of social culture, a gesture of respect or affection (dear).
The digital work has been absorbed into the depths of recent works such as Laundry (see p. 14), where the image, digital printing on a perforated surface, and the placement in the space, have become a single internal unit. A gray, “feminine” work, Laundry has received a new context that leans on a pictorial tradition. The hanging laundry has initiated a dialogue with meanings that have accumulated in culture – “hanging meat” and its associations in Jewish art (Soutine) and in international art (Rembrandt or Francis Bacon). The laundry hangs like a digital skin from which the marrow of life – the vertical texture that preserved a remote derivative of the body – has been squeezed.
In one of the last digital work in this catalogue(see p. 35), Mirit Cohen-Caspi has returned to an elongated format of a “figure” or a Column Envelope. Emerging out of an amorphous texture, at both its ends, feet and hands, with long, “spiritual” fingers have as-it-were taken up position. A figure – like an icon that has arisen from the depths of the past or, perhaps, a phantom of lost identity, essence or truth – unravels like knitting that has been pulled by a skein yet is still here, even if it hides the spirit of its face.

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