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Judith Cowan: The Other Place
Stella Santacatterina

It is impossible not to agree with Roger Caillois that art is a way of knowing sui generis both for the subject creator and for the observer, it is an experience at once astonishing and disquieting. And, as such, it cannot be subject to the rules and the concept of knowledge inherent in the natural sciences, nor to the laws governing polite society. But, above all, Caillois seems to capture perfectly the method and artistic personality that informs the work of Judith Cowan. The artist’s adoption of a variety of means, her unusual combination of materials and the eccentricity of the composition are not dictated by an anxiety for technical experimentation, but by the desire and intention to unbalance our acquired knowledge, to reveal — reveal to us — the singular experience of art, its essence and vocation, which is not that of offering solutions or indicting alternatives or formulating innovative proposals, but simply sets itself the task of offering another way of seeing, of seeing something else without the presumption of modifying what is seen, the so-called existent. And so for Judith Cowan photography, drawing and collage are not the final aim, but simply the means for founding a complex language where, at the same time, techniques, forms and sculptural materials are brought into question by a practice that starts from the idea that sculpture is a field of linguistic possibilities, open and infinite. Her aim is that of subverting-overturning our vision of the world to produce a dislocation, inflicting a distortion to our sensibility, introducing a vibration, an impertinence, into our way of seeing and perceiving.

The artist’s first works date from the 1980s, which were the years of the so-called New British Sculpture. Nevertheless, they are very different from those of her contemporaries. That new generation, compared to their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s, abandoned traditional structures and materials, privileging the object and irony, but at the same time preserved the same experience and the same concept of space as a tabula rasa, a neutral space that leaves room for the work. Cowan’s uniqueness seems to derive from her special affinity for a poetics of the sublime, understood as overcoming physical contingency in the direction of a space-time absolute. Art for her is a rite of passage, a play of re creation, a play to suspend time by capturing it in ritual and in the staging of a conflict between subject and object. In this way the work becomes the place of a symbolic transition, a threshold. Her object is the found object, the reconstructed object, and it lives in what Deleuze would call a dimension of “espacement”. It is the sign of a transition of a meeting that opens unusual directions in thought and time. Her works are inhabited by a logic of contamination that tends to open the form towards new and unpredictable configurations — a desire that in her previous works was expressed in the image of water levels and in folds. As with the work of Piero Manzoni, Cowan’s attitude demonstrates the infinite possibility of form...

... From Barthes to Deleuze and Blanchot there is an insistence on this essential nexus between absence and language. It is only from absence that one can gain access to the stage of art and draw on still unexpressed germinal forces. Man leapt into language all of a sudden, he was suddenly born into the word from the depths of animal mutism. The artist is at the origin of this break that lets us discern the possibility of the triumph of desire over the body’s destiny. In this sense, the work of art is the effect of language, the hallmark of the radical heterogeneity between the symbolic and the real. A controlled violence, Artaud would say, for which “being cultured means burning forms, burning forms to gain life (...), always the void, the dark space, the point at which material thickens. Manikins, objects of extraordinary proportions, will be as important as verbal images (...); theatre is the genesis of creation”.


It is always the void that opens to the real of the body, in which the body takes form because the real is presented in the symbolic as empty space. The genesis of creation is seen as a breakdown of existing relations. A sculpture, as we see in Judith Cowan, is a transformative object, this all and nothing, empty space, empty word, border area and so conjunction of light/dark, death/life, female/male, silence/word. The transformative object is the appearance of a disappearance, the point at which the image remains suspended in the surroundings of the unsaid, as we can see in another work, The Other Side (1998). In creating The Other Side, the artist covered an entire interior space in black material, and like a membrane it both covered and excluded the space. It was like real space overturned, a twilight zone, a camera obscura. With this operation, the artist achieved a linguistic degree zero, recalling that performed by Paolini in 1960 when he presented the simple, geometri- cally square surface as the precondition for pictorial representation.

Cowan has always conceived her works not as representations of volumes, but as revelations of spaces found in the scenes and folds of the life surrounding us and of the light and complex history of art itself. As in Calvino, lightness is associated with precision and determination and never with vagueness and leaving things to chance. From Life is before and after the scene, the space in between where there is no beginning or end because the one is equivalent to the other, a space in which the spectator is forced to move around and through. Without having to choose, the various elements enter into a relation with each other that is constantly renewed, arousing all sorts of images and emotions. From Life is a vertical place, as fluid as memory, a pure transition that evades any formalisation, or any localisation that can be identified with the liveable and the lived (Deleuze). Cowan reaches a space that is void and at the same time absolutely open to the event.


Extract published in monograph, the capacity of things: from life, by Professor Simonetta Lux and Domenico Scudero, pub. by Gangemi Editore, 2005.

Coincided with solo exhibition, from life, Museo Laboratorio di Art Contemporanea, curated by Professor Simonetta Lux and Stella Santacatterina, Rome, 2005.

© Judith Cowan 2022
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