‘The work is all about the moment’: Ezra Cohen Exhibition

Ezra Cohen’s new exhibition is running at the Meller Merceux Gallery, Oxford, until February 28th 2013. I spoke to gallery owner Aidan Meller about the paintings. 

The visceral paintings currently on exhibition at the Meller Merceux gallery are those of Ezra Cohen, a collaboration of two artists of the School of Oxford. The group, including painters such as Donald Wyland and Seth Bernstein, share studio space and aim to achieve a communal artistic process to the extent of contributing to each others’ canvasses. The two artists who are Ezra Cohen, one self-taught and the other with a degree in Fine Art, are united by a fascination with the landscape, and notions of isolation from and unity with it; their choice to create one personality, ‘Ezra Cohen’, as the voice of their art emphasises the inter-connectivity that they aim to strive for. ‘Approaching art jointly leads to creative surprises – that’s what makes painting so rewarding. We want to immerse viewers in the depth of the forest and the emotions it stirs.’ They see themselves as following in the line of Expressionist painting, their art attempting to achieve a heightened emotional and subjective response through a distortion of the perceived world. Citing Van Gogh and Munch as particular influences, they say that ‘Their often violent brushwork and resonant use of colour has a truth and directness that continue to inspire our work as Cohen.’

Following in this tradition, Cohen’s works are described by his representative Aidan Meller as ‘Direct, emotionally charged, involved with nature itself.’ As part of the attempt to connect with nature at an intimate level, Cohen uses not only natural materials on his canvasses, but also uses his own blood as a medium. Of course, he is not the first to do so, with artists such as Vincent Castiglia and Marc Quinn having painted and sculpted in their own blood. So what sets Ezra Cohen apart? Meller tells me that his inspiration to use his own blood stems from a particular moment, ‘He saw a baby bird, picked it up and felt its heartbeat. He felt it touch his cheek and thought “I want to be that close to nature, to be able to feel the lifeblood of nature itself”. He is trying to apply himself as nature.’ Not only is the physical act of cutting oneself to produce art an expression of man’s capacity do commit violence against nature, but it also highlights the indivisibility of the human from our natural surroundings.

Is this unity that Cohen strives for possible through the abstraction of a canvas? ‘He thinks that by using materials of nature together with what you are made of in nature, that’s where the intimacy comes from.’

Vessels III
Vessels III

The second anecdote that Meller offers as an inspiration for Cohen’s work stems from an experience in the Polish forests depicted in some of the paintings. ‘One very early morning he got up walking through the forests and it was one of those incredible moments – the Polish forests are hundreds of square miles – and all the trees were cut in half by the mists, almost like a Gothic landscape. It was one of those magical moments, to set the scene. As he was walking through and taking in the view with the beams of the rising sun through the trees, the most unbelievable thing happened. If it was in a film you’d think it was Romantic and naff. As he was walking a herd of deer came running through the forest, and at that moment Morricone’s theme from The Mission was suddenly played. In the middle of a forest, miles from anywhere. It’s a very haunting soundtrack and theme, and to have that played – on an actual oboe – in the middle of the forest at the same time the deer emerged, is astonishing. Of course, he then had to go and find where on Earth this was coming from. In fact it came from a group of people camping in the forest. This combination of the natural and manmade creating that heightened sense of emotion really encapsulated the themes of Cohen’s works.’

The physicality of the paintings is extraordinary. They range from bold, bright depictions of nature with an almost Oriental influence to the more stark and abstract, the earth represented by cracked Artex that projects from the canvas. The latter are some of the most recent in the exhibition, moving towards the more abstract style that Meller says characterises his latest work. ‘It’s as though the forest is out of them’, he says. Interspersed with the dynamism of the Polish forest paintings, they create an immersive presence within the gallery space. And this, for Meller, is at the heart of the exhibition. ‘The work is all about the moment.’

Leah Broad

Ezra Cohen’s exhibition will run at the Meller Merceux Gallery, Oxford, until February 28th 2013. For more information about the gallery of Cohen’s works, please visit www.mellermerceux.com and the gallery can also be followed on Twitter @MellerMerceux

The Oxford Culture Review was informed after interview that Ezra Cohen is an artistic collaboration. When asked, the gallery stated: “The artists of The School of Oxford collectively develop artworks made under artistic pseudonyms. Passing canvasses from one to another they offer a new vision of what it means to be an artist. These artists have been working in a collaborative way for a while, but their identities have been hidden from public view, until now, in order for the art works to talk for themselves.”

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