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Retrospectively Digesting Judith Cowan
Hannah Nussbaum


Judith Cowan’s multi-media and performative sculpture fell at the cul-de-sac that defined the late seventies and early eighties UK counterculture: a moment when the classical avant-garde felt at an impasse and the welfare state was being eroded by Thatcherite politics and thus speculation around un-realized actions became one mode of small resistance. This UK cul-de-sac might also be said to map onto the work of contemporaries of Cowan’s: artists like Anish Kapoor and Shirazeh Houshiary, college peers who were all influenced by Arte Povera, Duchamp, Robert Morris and Joseph Beuys.

Cowan and her contemporaries constituted a cycle so named New British Sculpture — referring to installation artists and sculptors from the early 1980s who, in a turn away from de-materialized work and cool conceptualism, re-inserted material, fabrication and space into British contemporary art. New British Sculpture re-imagined form and medium as regions of language and symbol, sign and signifier: material as metaphor, and as argument. This was a cycle that re-engaged with form on an instinctive, nearly mythical register, material constructing an intuitive lexicon with quotation marks wholly absent.

This re-engagement with the poetics of material was the central
feature of Cowan’s work, and retrospectively she might be understood as a committed formalist. This posed for her the problem of the female artist working in the late seventies. Critics at the time were interested in finding a psychological interiority, an engagement with emotion or otherwise political project gesturing at an identity politic within her work. But Cowan was interested in material, and surface. In a second wave feminist context, where woman-as-object was the subject of criticism and resistance, it was then a detournement to double down on surface and object: a female artist self-consciously objectifying her work (and indeed Cowan’s body was variously inscribed through plaster casting and mould making across several of her most important works). Female artist as chameleon, aping the formalist and expert craft of the male visionary. Some critics missed this double negative, this insistence on form, surface, primitive virtuosity of material: Julian Stallabrass’s numerous responses to Cowan’s work characterised her approach as a ‘mis-guided mysticism.’

Earlier work dramatised her commitment to letting her medium unfold, unencroached by methods that might shoe-horn form into an argument or essential truth. Hospital Tent (1978) is one such always-already revealed structure. The materials (twentieth century steel tubes, glass stretchers, tent material) are deregulated from any semiotic nudge they could otherwise give, and rather reveal, as in one of Beuys’ Vitrines, the dismantling of sign into surface and the perception bound up therein. And though auto-theory was not Cowan’s register of choice, autobiographical secrets did indeed inform the work (but the hospital bed is her referent alone, and the work becomes about something beyond it, something else).

Her work in ‘The Sculpture Show’ at Hayward Gallery in 1983 used
sand and resin, substances chosen for their mirage-like qualities (chemically intrinsic to these specific materials) to practice a de-conceptualization that threw the objects themselves and their physical compositions into clarity. This anti-symbolism, present throughout Cowan’s work, produced forms that foreclosed a sensible climax or summit, the deferral of finality recalling Giorgio Agamben’s liberated play: actions which, in their immediacy and undecidability, become ‘means without end’. Let’s then understand Cowan as a female flaneur: walking and wielding material without purpose, but always with a reverence for materiality and its clandestine ontologies. This insistence on anti-symbolism and the psychological and physical drift so tied up in it would appear in later works: her performative installation and text work Finnegan’s Teeth (2009) activated walking through the movements of a camera following the sightline of a dog. An anti-image governed by un-logic.

Developing on the tail end of artists like John Latham, for whom all
artworks were considered events in time rather than objects in space, Cowan’s sculptures are unmediated encounters between observers and the absolute reality of her objects. We witness sculptures that are filmic, insofar as they are modulations of time, events that seem to unfold in continually deferred slowness. And indeed her practice forged connections between object and film in strange ways. More recent films like The Palace of Raw Dreams (2012) and
Angelica (2013) animate props and puppets, dramatising the limits of sculpture as a static form through erecting large-scale projections of her films onto sculptural stage scaffolding. These later works position time and motion as two new materials that might be sculpted (and pushed beyond their conventional formal applications). All of this renders Cowan a classically anti-classical formalist sculpture — a British tradition which she passed on to her students (the YBAs).

And if the female artist has always been in a double bind — either
reduced to image, muse and object or otherwise assumed to be
a complex box of secrets and stories and emotional labour — a double bind which demands the artist be simultaneously impossibly contained but also voyeuristically revealed, then surely one way out is to squirm outside of the limits of these demands. Cowan as a boat, a footstool, a pile of blankets, a jug, a dog, a young man, a sculptor interested in the noumenal qualities of colour, space, shape and form.

Royal College of Art, 2019.

© Judith Cowan 2022
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