Charles Cohen

by Nick Becker


“Yank v1.0,” (2013). Archival pigment print. 40 x 60 inches. Courtesy the artist and Benrubi Gallery, New York.

Charles Cohen

Everything's Fine Today, That Is Our Illusion

The work of visual artist Charles Cohen appears chiefly concerned with the tendency to haphazardly consume the images around us. By subtracting certain key elements of information from the frame (


), or putting familiar objects in a new context (

About Face

), he challenges us to engage as a participant-observer, filling the void with our own experiences. In a recent telephone interview I described the effect that this had on me as a viewer.

I feel that humor is a big part of your work. It is often really playful despite there being these serious dichotomies. Thank you.

Why is that? When something that’s readymade is put in a new context that it becomes funny? I think it’s empowering. I think humor is a way to connect with the viewer, and I think it’s a way to make experiences their own. I think that’s why people want to be funny in general. I think that humor is established, in a lot of cases, by some sort of counter-intuition. Like, for example, in the face of intuition. It’s sort of flipping it—without any subtlety—on its head. And to a certain extent I’m engaging in that, and re-contextualizing it with fine art, which softens it a bit, but I feel that my practice follows the policy of re-contextualizing for the sake of humor or in the way that humor does.

It pokes fun at the things that we allow to have power over ourselves. Yes.

And similarly with the American flag in Yank, which is so loaded with iconography. And even going back to this work of yours with the household cleaners. About Face

About Face, yes. When we’re shown these familiar objects without proper context, without their labels, and just as objects with spouts, ribs, and such, they become sort of pornographic. Could you talk about manufactured design and your interest here? In terms of design and the consumerist culture, I’m definitely engaged in that, and in About Face more than any other work I’ve done. I just feel that there’s this kind of authority of the language of “commercial-ism” and “product-ism” that is almost divine. This is completely sacrilegious and profane but in a way that people regarded the divine before there were products—I mean you can’t point at one entity as responsible because it’s a cultural phenomenon, but—I think that these designers have the intention to create this exalted experience. It’s an authority. I mean the color choices are studied and forms are studied and I kind of have a critical love for it because it’s everywhere. And for every source of authority, there is an opportunity to turn it upside down, making it beautiful, make it your own and share that; unpacking the fabric of perception of a culture at that time. I’m more aware of those things because, now, I have kids and there is a level of thinking that is really required today in order to not end up with heart disease and chemical exposure [laughs]. And it’s been my mission long before I had kids to care so much about it. I feel that this is what makes us empowered as people who live in a culture and perceive things that we do, and consume as consumers, and consume as perceivers.

“Yank v1.0,” (2013). Archival pigment print. 40 x 60 inches. Courtesy the artist and Benrubi Gallery, New York.