Provincetown East West by Barbara Cohen
Hanover, NH, Univ. of New England Press, 40 pp, 36 images
New England Press, $15.95
August 2002

Originally 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) 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.

In Provincetown 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. There is an impressionist quality to the images; color intensified by the bright Cape light, so bright one must take it in glimpses, in quick impressions. 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 Lobster Pot (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 the horizon 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 same.

Barbara Cohen's abstract work can be seen at Addison Art Gallery in Orleans, where a book signing will be held on July 13.

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved