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Eileen Cowin (1947)

Eileen Cwin

Eileen Cowin’s earlier photographs seemed to belong to the genre of the domestic snapshot. They purported to be slice-of-life images of families at the dinner table, or couples conversing in the living room or the master bedroom. Just beneath the surface, however, was an element of artifice—a self-conscious pose or an odd disconnection between characters that subtly undermined the illusion of spontaneous intimacy.

In her new photographs, the theatrical element has been made explicit. Men in trench coats or nondescript suits and women in slinky red dresses posture against a deeply shadowed background, arranged in tableaux that seem derived from film or art history. Their gestures are broad and symbolic, the situations in which they find themselves suggest the conventions of film noir and their faces are frequently obscured by shadow, hair or hat, heightening the suggestion that they are meant to represent types rather than individuals.

Voyeurism is a recurring theme—several works feature figures peering from behind Venetian blinds. When the characters are not observing each other, they make it clear by their studied poses that they are aware they are being watched. At times, their deliberate, archetypal movements echo Kabuki theater. Like the film stills that these photographs imitate, Cowin’s images suggest freeze-frame shots from mysterious narratives. The work that offers the closest approximation of traditional narrative consists of four panels: in the first, a woman in a red silk shift peers through a Venetian blind; in the second, she stands with her back to us, holding a crumpled letter and staring at a telephone. The third image shows her again peering through the blind, this time in close-up, and the fourth presents what is apparently the object of vision: a man branded with the stripe pattern of the Venetian blind, rummaging through an unmade bed.

While Cowin’s earlier, domestic photographs focused on the terrors of familial intimacy, these new images crackle with sexual tension, even when the characters are all men. As in film noir, these tableaux suggest that the rituals of male bonding and competition are essentially a matter of pose. If women fit into this world at all, it is as glamorous and potentially dangerous objects of desire. Although Cowin inevitably celebrates such conventions, through her deliberately self-mocking artifice, she also challenges them. This is also true of the works that refer to art history. Cowin’s treatment of the odalisque as a television viewer, or her presentation of a veiled Magritte heroine before her painted representation, casts a sheen of absurdity over Western art’s tendency to objectify women. Cowin’s photographs are great fun, but they bear a hidden stinger.

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