Provincetown East West by Barbara Cohen
Hanover, NH, Univ. of New England Press, 40 pp, 36 images
New England Press, $15.95
published review in Cape Arts Review, 2002
Provincetown, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Sometimes it's hard to hear one's true love described by another - and
this discomfort can be especially true when it comes to place. I have
a well-traveled friend who refuses to read literature about a place after
he's been there. Nothing measures up to his experience. But when it comes
to artist Barbara Cohen's Provincetown East West, her new book of painted
Polaroid images of the fishing village, art colony, gay Mecca, wild dunescape
thriving at the tip of Cape Cod, a place painted and photographed and
written about since forever, filtered through a thousand imaginations
(easy as she is) ...in this case, it's a shared love affair. Turning
the pages of this small book is a lovely, sensual, and, yes, romantic
rendezvous with a very special place.
Cohen works in many media: abstract painter, sculptor, printmaker, and
maker of artists' books. In the short Preface, Cohen tells us she first
came to town to stay in the spring of 1993. I remember her exhibition
at Berta Walker's West Windows that summer, the reductive oil paintings,
elemental descriptions of archetypal images - boats and shelters and
nomadic dwellings in muted colors. I returned several times to stand
in front of one small boat. The shelters metamorphosed into containers
- baskets and cradles and caskets, and on to the buckets of her recent
work. At first literal, the markings of the buckets have now become more
abstract, the paintings larger in scale and more vibrant in color. The
story of these images, the journeys and materials that inspire the work,
is fascinating. And this new book is a part of that story, for it is
with her books and other Polaroid work that Cohen supports her abstract
painting. In this way, Cohen is savvier than most artists. She's found
a commercial art niche that works for her.
East West, her sixth book, Cohen's manipulation moves closer
to painting. The power and the burden of photography is the transience
of the moment. Cohen stretches that moment with the echo of paint.
is an impressionist quality to the images; color intensified by the
bright Cape light, so bright one must take it in glimpses, in quick
Then, laying oil paint over snapshots, Cohen works in loose brush strokes,
wet on wet. The resulting images hum and quiver with summer. We begin
at the peak of the last ridge high above Provincetown, Adrian's on
our right, the simple forms, shadow and light, of Day’s cottages
strung out along the Bay. Who has not thrilled to that sight? Once
I drove alone
straight from Durham, NC, my old home, to Provincetown, fourteen hours,
and when I came over that hill, I cried to see the tiny town, lights
twinkling around the shoreline.
Who says nostalgia is a base emotion? What do we want more than home?
There's that quality of longing in these images -- the way they are arranged,
a slow drive down Commercial Street, passing the gardens and houses and
churches, a dory on the beach, the abandoned bicycles at The Homestead,
a brightly striped Adirondack chair, empty and waiting on a deck, the
(I had my first Provincetown meal here.), and the parked town trolley,
westward, past Sal's Place, where a plate of pasta restored many
an artist to sanity, and finally, the breakwater, diminishing into
where past and future meet, and surely, the gods must dwell. Even
the drag queen's ball gown is vintage finery.
This is Cohen's Provincetown, and mine, too. It's not what it used to
be, they say. It's changed, they say. Maybe. Cohen doesn't include the
sidewalks packed with tourists, traffic backed up to Route 6, drunks
behind the PO, trash spilling out of the cans in Lopez Square, a swarm
of beefy torsos in front of Spiritus, Jamaican workers gathered at roadside,
waiting for the bus out of town. No, No. Cohen has captured a quieter,
deeper spirit of Provincetown. Perhaps she is conjuring an old reality.
Perhaps her vision is clouded by love, but it's a sweet sight all the
Barbara Cohen's abstract work can be seen at Addison Art Gallery in
Orleans, where a book signing will be held on July 13.