Laughing at One’s Own Denial

Arthur Cohen brilliantly vamps the crying need for acceptance in one’s later years

Arthur Cohen embarrasses himself with flair. His exhibition “Just wanna be cool” includes four monumental self-portraits. From “The Avenger,” a ridiculous and foppish self-portrayal of himself prancing about in a silver jumpsuit and boxing gear, to the hysterical and disturbing “London Calling 2004,” in which the artist is attempting to stuff his big feet into ill-sized Helmut Lang shoes, Cohen has brilliantly captured the perverse ethos of age’s self-denial. And what could be more appropriate for this veteran artist, whose skill is clearly apparent in the slick rich surfaces of these figurative studies of desperation for acceptance coupled with cringing self-loathing?

The large figures twisting and twirling have some visual lineage in Robert Longo’s stoic and suited figures from the 1980s, but beyond the monumental and the figurative relationships, all resemblance ends. Cohen’s grotesque humor at first comes across as a one-liner. The images and their emotional residue tap into our cultural anxiety about growing old. If we’re lucky, each of us may have the opportunity to walk in those Helmut Lang shoes. But what a prospect that is in North America, where increasing age implies a decrease in human value.

Our cultural obsession with everything young and the near invisibility of our elders exemplify this attitude. Cohen’s work doesn’t decry youth; instead he captures the ridiculous and pathetic caricature of the elderly and glorifies it. But rather than the relying on that emblematic cry of helpless old age, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” he includes as his “artist statement” a little rhyme:

It’s easier to admire your shoes when you hold them in your hands.

It’s hard to be a hero when you trip over your Helmut Langs.

It’s hard to be a rock star when you’re not in a band.

It’s hard to keep that image going as your spandex expands.

It’s hard to be the Avenger with only mirrors at the other end.

Cohen’s poetic artist statement summed up his sensibility for humor and pathos, finding glamour in the gutter and demonstrating the wisdom to look at, laugh at, and celebrate a life being lived now, rather than venting remorse and regret in reflecting on a youth lost.

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