Houston Chronicle | Artist Cohen shines lights on what we cannot see

Joseph’s Cohen‘s two-part art exhibition “Looking at a flower” involves no botanicals but presents some fascinating florescence.

One of the objects is an elaborate electrified device behind several sheets of acrylic, with a hexagonal painting made of material so charged it can activate a light bulb.

“The material is releasing photons into the space,” Cohen said. “We can’t see that because it’s in the infrared spectrum. But I’m able to use a specialized camera that captures an image of the florescence in the infrared. This painting is being excited by these LEDs that are 590 nanometers in wavelength. Then I’ve put these filters on top of the lights, so they block out any of the light beneath that, and set up a camera with another filter to receive just the fluorescence of the material.”

Cohen has also mixed the transfer dye rhodamine B into grid screenprint-paintings that have a higher wow-factor in ultraviolet (black) light. And he made prints and drawings that depict something impossible to see with the naked eye: magnified views of graphene, a one-atom-thick layer of graphite with a honeycomb structure.

What mad science is this, and what is the point?

Something in Cohen’s soft blue eyes and intense but quiet manner suggests he is not just out to show off or mess with your brain.

“We perceive our reality as what we see, the visible spectrum. But so much is in the ultraviolet below, and so much is in the infrared and beyond,” he said. “What I would like to address is getting a fuller handle on reality.”

Cohen’s shows at the Rice BioScience Research Collaborative and G Spot Contemporary Gallery are the result of collaborations with more than a half-dozen scientists across the U.S., plus an audio engineer and a master printmaker, during more than two years of residencies that enabled him to explore the science of nanotechnology as a tool for making art.

There’s more coming, including shows in California and New York and panel talks with the scientists in Houston.

Cohen’s ambition calls to mind the work of Dario Robleto, who has worked with scientists and medical doctors to explore the emotion of the human heartbeat. Cohen is focused on precision, perception and the “materiality” of paint.

In the past, he has made his own paint to create pieces that sometimes drip seductively, yielding to gravity. These works often incorporate pigments that shift chromatically, so colors change as viewers walk around them.

Now, he is fabricating paint at the molecular level, with carbon nanotubes that are one-thousandth the diameter of human hair. “So you’re really breaking something down,” he said. For those who are physics-challenged, it’s all pretty abstract – but also as precise as painting can get.

Carbon nanotubes cannot be bought for a few bucks at Texas Art Supply, even though the ones Cohen starts with are in what he calls “rough form.”

So, alongside the conventional art-making tools in his Heights studio, he now has a centrifuge and a probe sonicator – “basically like a jewelry cleaner on steroids,” he said. “That’s allowed me to separate different species of this material that fluoresce at very precise wavelengths.”

Cohen knew “Looking at a flower” would be multipronged, but it’s morphed into more than he anticipated.

Even with funding from the Houston Arts Alliance and Moody Center for the Arts, the project can break his bank. Cohen and his wife, Lindsay Davis, earn their living as art consultants whose clients include M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. His most important tool, which costs nothing, has always been his own curiosity.

The titles of the new works expose a side of Cohen that has not been so palpable before, driven more by emotion than by material calculations. That whizzy infrared machine, for example, is called “If he/she could only see my love.”

In the past, Cohen titled all of his paintings “Propositions” and gave each a number. That identified them as parts of a single body of work that numbers more than 400 pieces. The word “Proposition” also implied a question, as if he was asking viewers to consider the transcendent possibilities of his materials in the “slow art” vein of Mark Rothko or James Turrell. That kind of thinking excites lovers of contemporary art but can leave others feeling clueless.

“I guess now I’m not asking for acceptance,” Cohen said. “I think there was a certain kind of sensitivity and spirituality in the work before. Now I’m just kind of letting it all hang out.”

The ultraviolet paintings of his “L.D.” series – which are made with separated carbon nanotubes, gold and rhodamine B – are pink, unabashedly beautiful and named for his wife.

The biggest painting of his new project isn’t particularly bursting with visual excitement. The composition involves distantly spaced dots so small their various colors are hard to discern. From a distance, they resemble a few bars of music, minus the lines, treble and bass clefs and other notations. But the title – “Song for my father” – hints at much more than meets the eye.

The artist fondly remembers sitting on a piano stool as a child with his father, who was a musician. “I ultimately gave up music because I knew I wasn’t going to be as good as my dad,” he said.

With this piece, he has made music again, his way – not just through the painting but with a recording that plays through an iPod and headphones. Cohen analyzed pigment samples to create audio signatures in the lab of Ennio Tasciotti and Christian Boada at Houston Methodist Research Institute, then collaborated with Dan Workman at Sugar Hill Studios to translate the signatures into a series of musical chords.

It’s a nifty idea: What might a painting actually sound like, if pigments were audible?

Cohen also feels “Song for my father” brings his work full circle. His father died about four years ago of lung cancer, and so much biomedical nanotech work is directed at finding and treating cancers.

“There’s this great relationship of art through the lens of science and science through the lens of art,” he said. “What’s going on in these institutions is of great worth.”

He started his nanotech journey with Daniel Heller at Sloan Kettering/ Weill Cornell, who taught him how to use a probe sonicator and a centrifuge, among other things. Cohen worked with graphene made in-situ on equipment created by James Tour at Rice University. He studied innovations in optics, utilizing short-wave infrared cameras, with Bruce Weisman’s group at Rice. He also collaborated with Ming Zheng at the National Institute for Standards and Technology and Patrick Masterson of Burning Bones Press.

But one piece of the project suggests Cohen hasn’t lost touch with his basics, in spite of all the technology-dependent stuff: “Graphene Drawing” illustrates the honeycomb structure of graphene, many times magnified. Cohen made that piece simply, and laboriously, by hand, with just a pencil, a stencil and paper, creating different gradations of “color” by adjusting the pressure of his mark-making.

“It starts to kind of mirror ourselves, our humanness and our physical shortcomings,” he said of the whole project. “If we can slow down in the way we try to absorb information, maybe we’ll have a richer understanding of it.”

He borrowed the project’s “Looking at a flower” title from a comment the great physicist Richard Feynman once made, after an artist friend said it was a shame the scientist couldn’t appreciate a flower for its aesthetic beauty. Feynman held that his aesthetics were simply different, based on the flower’s inner structure and workings, and how they evolved over time to attract different insects.

“That way of looking is really miraculous,” Cohen said.

“I’m still trying to get to an objective space of how we see art. You may like it or dislike it, but there’s something in terms of the fidelity of the materials that is there. You can distill so much of art, and it doesn’t make it really cold: It opens it up for a richer experience.”

By Molly Glentzer

De Buck Gallery is looking forward to present Cohen’s latest body of work in Spring 2018

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