In a world increasingly dominated by complex technology, something as simple as a painting might seem to be losing its effect on viewers. Except when that painting is great. What exactly makes a painting great is hard to pinpoint, but there’s something about Alex Bradley Cohen’s paintings that draw you in and keep you there. A new exhibition of the artist’s work, called Flat Top, is now up at Nicelle Beauchene, a lower Manhattan gallery well-suited for displaying these exuberant pieces.
The paintings are simple. They show Cohen’s friends and acquaintances, sitting on chairs and couches, eating plates of salad with bottles of water sitting on the table, and they’re looking directly at you as if looking at a camera lens. They are portraits, through and through, but they’re warped, ever so slightly. Cohen applies a light expressionistic touch—facial features and room scales exaggerated just so—in order to draw the eyes in. There are stories in each of these paintings, stories about nice people hanging out and having a good time (though some suggest moments a little more exasperated).
The conversations in these paintings are all different, but they clearly all include Cohen as the interlocutor, the one painting from memory and experience. This is his perspective. Cohen, born in 1989, lives and works in Chicago, and has shown at the Art Institute there, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and attended the esteemed Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, amongst other accolades. But these paintings are fascinating not only for their formal excellence; there’s a spirit lingering in them that makes you want to know more about the artist.
Part of this effect is because the works are not just focused on the human subjects. Indeed, what makes these paintings so impactful are the settings that the characters reside in. Green chairs and ottomans, a foot resting on the latter, patterned rugs and midcentury furniture, and, of course, the paintings within the paintings. There’s an imperfection in each of the works that bolsters their perfection, a twist that stretches both space and face.
According to the gallery’s press release, the title of the show “makes reference to both the Def Jam era of hip hop and the modernist mandate to flatten space and abandon mimesis.” The paintings in Flat Top do create flatter planes and reject exact representation. But instead of creating a surreal, otherworldly quality, this method actually draws out the humanity in these figures and rooms. And through this mindful application of abstraction and informalism, Cohen invites viewers to join the conversation, and to recognize that slight imperfections are part of life as much as they’re part of art.
Alex Bradley Cohen: Flat Top
Through October 8, 2017
327 Broome St, New York, NY 10002