If I could enter Lynne Cohen's photographs with the eye of an archeologist exploring a foreign or forgotten culture, I might detect a certain unarticulated power, through sheer recurrence of form, in the drop ceiling or the potted tree. In the absence of any definitive demonstration of function, the unoccupied rooms she photographs take on a mysterious significance, and my imagination runs wild in the face of their uncanny presence and nebulous purposes. There is a prevailing sense of containment in these largely windowless rooms, full of partitions and subdivisions that accommodate a range of muscular pursuits and seem to say "Everything is best done indoors." A mood of anticipation is companion to the sitting and waiting suggested by so many chairs in these lobbies and corridors, heavy on comfort and stylistic posturing. Not so for sleep; this activity is presumably in need of an audience and a spare, inhospitable bed. For nearly forty years, Cohen's photographs of spas, laboratories, classrooms and training facilities have fueled such imaginings. Through the clarity of uninflected lighting and a "neutral" stance, she delivers the message "NOTHING IS HIDDEN," or perhaps, look what I saw, hidden in plain sight.
In 2011, Cohen won the first Scotiabank Photography Award, devised to acknowledge and promote excellence in contemporary Canadian photography through monetary support for the winner, along with an exhibition and publication from Steidl. The bulk of this catalog is devoted to nearly 150 stellar reproductions of Cohen's work from 1973 to 2011. Three short essays offer a succinct critical overview, and are appealingly distinct in their perspective and tone. Ann Thomas, curator of photography at the National Gallery of Canada discusses how Cohen's work both indexes how we devise and order institutional spaces, and reveals the slips in the visual boundaries between spa and lab, club and school. Cohen writes a lucid explanation of her motives and goals, and the reception of her work – she is puzzled by those who have labeled her work as cold, while missing out on its patent humor. The English writer Jenny Diski also contributes a quirky, meandering walk through the imagined experience of entering and inhabiting these photographs, these seemingly vacant rooms – for her, for Cohen and for the rest of us. Nothing is Hidden is a seamless survey that rewards a suspension of disbelief, in deference to the prosaic and in pursuit of all there is to see in these quietly strange and wonderful photographs.
Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.