Art historians rarely go out of their way to criticize contemporary artists publicly: They simply ignore the ones they don't like and keep the canon gates locked. So it was notable when Amelia Jones, a prominent feminist art historian and author, attacked little-known artist Liz Cohen in this summer's edition of X-TRA magazine. In an essay reviewing the history of feminist art, Jones described Cohen's work—which includes large color photographs of Cohen wearing a bikini on top of a car—as "simplistic repetitions of bad advertisements for cars." Cohen's depictions of her own "young, white, thin body" are "resolutely normative" (status-quo enforcing) and "binary" (based on simplistic, oppositional equations about men and women), Jones wrote. If Jones had written the essay in the last two weeks, she might have called Cohen the Sarah Palin of the art world.
It's hard to fathom such a misreading by such an experienced mind. To be fair, when I first saw Cohen's large, racy photographs, I was pained. Cohen is young, she is thin, and she does look white. But then I looked into it.
Cohen is not white—but let's put that aside for a moment. The car-model photographs are a small part of a far larger project that spans Cohen's career and that is deeply invested in what Jones argues good new feminist art ought to do: "understand 'gender' as a question rather than an answer—and a question that percolates through other subjective and social identifications—sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality."
Cohen's early documentary photographs, made between 1996 and 1999, along with a video of a performance related to the photographs, are currently on display at Lawrimore Project. The photographs depict transgender sex workers in the Panama Canal Zone during the final days of the U.S. occupation there. Their performances are gender-indeterminate: They flash the breasts they've grown by taking hormones, but their attempts to hide penises or other "masculine" details range from hard-fought "believability" to total irreconcilability.
Cohen didn't preserve the "binarism" between documentarian and subject, either. The subjects Cohen spent so much time with wanted to dress her up eventually, and a colleague of Cohen's in San Francisco at the time even asked her whether she was a biological male (Cohen's mousy everyday appearance is far from a car model's; done up as a model she resembles Amy Winehouse). In a later performance presented in Seattle as a video, Cohen dressed herself up as a drag queen and sat in front of a TV playing prerecorded footage of her un-made-up self acting as interviewer to the live drag queen. The questions and answers in Spanish are from an interview with one of Cohen's Panamanian subjects. The interviewer translates the answers from Spanish into English, but the "translations" mix in autobiographical details about Cohen, and only if you speak Spanish—Cohen's native language, since her parents are both Colombian immigrants to the United States—can you understand that the translations are wrong, mixing in information (those autobiographical Cohen details) that the Spanish speaker didn't say.
The messy, border-fuzzing, and generally nonbinary, nonnormative business of immigration is Cohen's central subject as an artist. The car-model photographs are part of Cohen's project BODYWORK, which includes her transformation of herself and a car. For the last several years, her art studio has been a body shop in Scottsdale, Arizona (although she has recently moved to Detroit to teach at Cranbrook), and she has emigrated from a formally educated fine-art world into lowrider culture (a largely Latino culture) by learning how to build a car.
The car itself is an immigrant: an East German Trabant that she's made to transform, thanks to elaborate design and hydraulics, into an American El Camino. Both cars have been discontinued; both are symbols of failed utopias. In the lowrider world, car owners, car models, and car builders are three different people. Cohen brings them together.
But more important, every interaction she has in the shop every day is part of the project. So is the car. So are the interviews about it. So will be her experiences when she finally finishes the car and enters it into car competitions.
Jones, in her essay, is reducing the project to two dimensions. She misses the point twice. First, by taking the photographs to stand in for the entire project, she's reinforcing the product- driven art world's practice of representing this project chiefly in flat, sexy photographs, not in process-oriented performances, ephemera, interviews, video, or the car itself—which has only been displayed in Sweden and Scottsdale. (Is this project's objectification in the art world—and by Jones—so different from the objectification of women in the world of aggressive media and advertising?) Second, the car-model photographs are rich with in-shop jokes that you don't get until you read interviews about the project with the shop owner and workers: The photographs are funny to them because the photographs are actually so wrong.
Cohen continually disrupts the perfect-woman-and-perfect-car package. In the images, the car looks dismantled because it is unfinished. A modeling session is held in a grungy break room rather than in a groomed environment. If you're an academic, you probably don't get the photographs. An academic response like Jones's, presented as all-knowing but in fact missing many of the codes, only proves the point of the distance between the upper-class art world and the working-class situation of an environment like a car shop.
This is just the beginning of what's going on in Cohen's body of work, and of what's wrong with Jones's half-formed judgment. Jones calls Cohen's work "bizarre," "disconcerting," and the source of a "profound sense of melancholy." My profound sense of melancholy comes from the apparent carelessness of a highly placed feminist intellectual.Read Jones's article here.