It's usually not that hard to navigate an unfamiliar room. Whether it's a bowling alley or a broom closet, architectural features, furniture, décor and other people all tip us off to its purpose and our place in it. They let us know where to look, what to do and where to go.
Over years and lifetimes spent in different rooms, we learn to read the clues they offer, even if we're not aware of doing it.
Throughout her career, Governor General's Award-winning photographer Lynne Cohen critically examined these clues, and what she found could be surprising, even disorienting. Her decontextualized images of semi-private interiors -- places like classrooms, laboratories, rental halls and day spas -- appear deceptively straightforward at first. On closer inspection, however, peculiarities and inconsistencies would always emerge, teasing at undisclosed motivations and events transpiring just outside the frame.
Between Something and Nothing, currently at the WAG and co-organized by the National Gallery in Ottawa, brings together 40 years of Cohen's work.
Key features of what would become her formula are already evident in early, intimately-scaled black-and-white images from the '70s and '80s. The same straight-ahead viewing angles, total absence of people and disquieting stillness carry through to the larger, more immersive colour prints she made starting in the '90s.
Cohen's found spaces, which she documented unstaged and unaltered, read as psychologically charged dollhouse scenes in the smaller photographs. In one, giant sculpted body parts decorate the walls of a mortuary academy classroom. In another, rows of chairs on a raised platform overlook a wall-to-wall war-room map of Ottawa, its purpose unclear and its implications vaguely sinister. Larger black-and-white images highlight odd slippages between the natural and the artificial, inside and outside. Peering through the frames like windows of a museum diorama, we see a milliner's hat display made from spindly birch trees, a racquetball court with an photo-mural of a forest scene in one corner and a vacant corporate office wallpapered with incongruous trails of puffy white clouds.
Though people never appear, inanimate human stand-ins are frequent, taking the form of anything from empty desk chairs to bullet-riddled shooting range targets. These points of reference help us imagine ourselves inside the spaces, even if we'd rather not. Without them, scale becomes impossible to gauge: in Hall, a photo from 1999, the dingy, rust-coloured acoustical panelling of a hotel dining hall takes on the monumentality of an ancient sandstone ruin.
Some of Cohen's images of day spas, a recurring subject, flirt with the conventions of high-end real estate photography, while others suggest a lurid, slightly derelict facsimile of a Roman bath or the showers at a prison work camp. An eerie, untitled image showing a medical examination room of some kind grows more disconcerting as you take in each new detail: the large, curtained one-way mirror, the disconnected wires dangling from the ceiling, and what appears to be a camera behind housed in a wall-mounted cabinet, lens trained directly on the viewer.
Between Something and Nothing is a commanding, comprehensive introduction of one of Canada's pre-eminent contemporary photographers. Lynne Cohen's photographs invited us behind closed doors into spaces that are at once subtly strange and disquietingly familiar; in the process, she challenged us to take stock of our own overlooked surroundings.
Lynne Cohen succumbed to lung cancer on May 13. She was 69.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.