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A MOVIE AND A SHAKER . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . : Film Imagery Inspires Artist Eileen Cowin to Create 'Under-Your-Skin Kind of Work'

March 24, 1994|CATHY CURTIS and Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

Despite the warmth of the sunny morning, artist Eileen Cowin protectively wrapped herself in a big white sweater as she perched on a couch in a rented Venice house--her refuge after the Northridge quake destroyed her Culver City studio and made her home in Santa Monica uninhabitable.

Cowin, a longtime art professor at Cal State Fullerton, is known for her photographs of people engaged in ambiguous, often mysterious actions that look as though they might be moments from a film.

Her mixed-media installation "A Form of Ecstasy" is part of "Love in the Ruins: Art and the Inspiration of L.A," a group show at the Long Beach Museum of Art that evokes Los Angeles' dual identity as a sunny paradise and a locus of natural and man-made disaster. (The roster of artists also includes John Baldessari, Uta Barth, Vija Celmins, Russell Crotty, John Divola, Judy Fiskin, Catherine Opie, Jorge Pardo, Lari Pittman, Edward Ruscha and 11 others.)

"My work before the earthquake was about fear," Cowin said. "So I thought, to be in a show called 'Love in the Ruins' was so perfect. . . . I don't believe (the earthquake) is a message from God. I don't believe in that at all. But there is something in this idea of the handwriting on the wall, things being out of control. That 30 seconds of 'out of control' changed our life. There was nothing you could do.

"Everything stopped. A lot of people remember the car alarms going off. But to me, there was something that seemed horrifyingly silent--as if you were stuck in mud or quicksand or something. . . . It was chaos, but a chaos that was silent. In the (Akiro Kurosawa) movie 'Ran,' there is one part where a battle scene comes on and there's no sound. It's a silent battle. It's out of control."

In Cowin's piece, shown in a darkened room, three black-and-white photo-transparencies are illuminated like apocalyptic signs. A pen is poised as if writing by itself in a lined book. A fire--taken from video footage--seems to be burning out of control. An owl and a hawk perch next to each other in a luminous flurry of feathers: One looks toward the fire while the other seems to stare at the viewer. Juxtaposed with these images is a video projection of the lower portion of a woman's face. Almost imperceptibly, as if mutating from a still to a video image, the woman's mouth forms soundless phrases.

Although the impassive, sculptural qualities of the woman's face give her a strong presence, she's actually saying things such as, "I don't know" or "Thank you very much." Such "polite little phrases," Cowin said, are related to the idea that "being mute has to do with being powerless--that people make you powerless."

Eclectic movie references continually crop up in Cowin's conversation, and it comes as no surprise that film imagery inspires her carefully orchestrated tableaux.

"I rent videos and make stills from them to study lighting and gesture and things like that," she said. "On my studio wall in my other life, I had gestures of people doing things from all different films."

Cowin's movie binges date to her childhood in New York during the 1950s and '60s.

"I've always been interested in film as a pure, 'I'm-so-depressed- I-need-to-go-to-the-movies' escape," she said.

As an art student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she attended campus film screenings almost every night. At the same time, with the influence of Pop Art, she began combining her drawing and printmaking with photographic images drawn from the media.

Eventually, she started posing members of her family in deliberately stagy scenes evoking undercurrents of tension and anxiety, and these images remain her best-known work. But for the past decade, she has hired models to investigate other kinds of edgy relationships, particularly between men and women.

"A museum director once told me that he was interested in 'in-your-face' work," Cowin said. "I walked away from that discussion thinking, 'Well, I'm interested in the under-your-skin kind of work.' Did you ever see 'Tremors'? It's the stupidest movie, about these creatures you see crawling under the earth, and all of a sudden they pop up in front of you. . . . It's that sort of feeling of things crawling in your skin.

"When I give lectures, people will ask why I don't do film. And I say, 'Because I'm interested in that ultimate moment, that high moment when you don't know whether or not it's going to go this way or that way.' "

In "Between the Beasts and the Angels," a piece Cowin showed in 1991 at Roy Boyd Gallery in Los Angeles, "the entire room was an open narrative," she said.

"You were surrounded by images: a couple embracing, an owl, a door floating in space, two women struggling, a black woman covering her mouth (from which smoke is escaping), a woman with a tear welling down her face. . . .

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