VISUAL ART HAS primeval, ritualistic roots; amid the moneyed operations of galleries and the cloying notion of commercially accessible easy art, sometimes those old levels of cruelty and wisdom poke through. When you encounter the current body of self-portraits by Steven Cohen, collectively entitled There’s glitter in my soup!, you feel that resonance palpably. These distorted understandings of the detritus of Cohen’s performed work are like records of reversed make-up. They’re very violent gestures of skin pulling and unwinding, but they’re also as honest and as sacral as death masks.
Cohen has, since the late 1980s, redefined his personal aesthetic in a way that has flown in the face of wouldbe imitators. His full head of makeup, adorned with the kind of things you might find in Victorian curiosity cabinets or the tops of children’s birthday cakes, alongside his corseted body and exaggerated shoes have continued to unrelentingly drag whatever ‘drag’ means, beyond its own extremes.
Shock has been part of Cohen’s moral tool box ever since he and his partner Elu stood on the outside plinths of the Supreme Court, kissing in their work Art of Kissing. It’s been part of the palette he used to colour his hand-worked screen prints cleaving John Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland with images of enormous penises and grotesque wounds alongside portraits of 19th century South African political and military figure, Paul Kruger.
And the level of shock he has used and cajoled into life over the 30-plus years’ span of his career is never allowed to become stale, under his watch. After his filmed works Blood and Fat, which formed backdrops to his grand gesture to his late partner Elu, entitled Put your heart under your feet, and walk, it almost seemed that Cohen had reached the outer possibilities of his oeuvre. Endocannibalism was a part of this important body of performed work.
But here, in Glitter, you see Cohen stepping into a different, more applied, but no less gentle or unshocking area. These strips of archival duct tape, used to rip off his make up after each performance, are reconstructions of the bits of his face that remain. Filled with impressions of his pores and wrinkles, glitter, eyelashes and feathers, the images are witty and cruel; spiced with happenstance and uncontrol, they’re dark and uncomfortable and like the markings of a butterfly or an owl, they emulate a sense of face that is at once both about camouflage and protection as it is about brutal naked honesty. It’s an exhibition which is difficult to look at, as it is difficult to look away from.
- There’s glitter in my soup! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Gallery, 46 Seventh Avenue, Parktown North, Johannesburg, until January 24, 2020. Call 011 403 1055.