Miriam Cahn, review by Beverley Knowles
There is something deeply poignant about watching somebody sleeping. In sleep we aren’t guarding ourselves against the world, nor presenting ourselves to it. The perpetual need to control our environment is dropped. Even notions of personality and self come into question. Boundaries are blurred. What remains is vulnerability of a universal nature. A person is seen for what they are: a delicate mass of soft flesh, sensitive, fluttering eyelids and the tender, desperate need to love and be loved. In short, they become just like us. It’s a tremendously equalising space.
So much becomes apparent upon walking into Miriam Cahn’s exhibition at The David Roberts Art Foundation; the first room, an installation of small paintings of heads in sleep - Schlafen / Sleeping. It isn’t clear whether these sleeping heads are male or female, young or old. Cahn has pared away any signs of individuality. Even hair has become obsolete. As a result we find ourselves engaging with something far deeper and more elemental than anything that can be indicated by age, gender or creed. We become aware of the life force we all share, the precious interconnectedness we live with and by.
Cahn’s symbolic, vital palette follows us into the next room: Raum-ich / Room-Me / Spatial Me. This second painting installation elaborates on the theme; now a layer of autobiography is added, a loose narrative superimposed. A character so elemental she is near cartoonic is shown in various manifestations of her own existence, yet still she teeters not so very far from the edges of space and time. Backgrounds, plain walls of usually murky colour, allude to a sort of unknown pre-historicism; a skyline, occasionally, is hinted at. Features are highly expressive but utterly minimal; always naked, always agonisingly human. At times it feels almost like I’m in the Chauvet cave, so primitive are these images, so raw.
The canvases range from tiny to huge, hung at various heights around the room to ensure the protagonists’ eyes meet and are equal to the viewers. Nine canvases show Cahn in various roles: feelingme; mercilessme; notmotherme; futureme and finally, wonderfully borderless, me as man, in which the standing naked form grips a hold of its own bright red and very obvious indicator of maleness whilst sporting a contented expression on its childlike face. This work may be serious in the extreme but, reassuringly, it is not without humour.
Miriam Cahn is best known for her colourful painting. She also works with charcoal to produce monochromatic drawings. For Miriam, painting is not more final than drawing. Both are momentous, intuitively created events and both involve the performative; all her work is heavily influenced by and initially grew out of the feminist movement and performance happenings of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Now in her early 60s this is Swiss-born Cahn’s first solo presentation in London. Most of these works have never been shown before. Who knows when the opportunity may arise again to revel in her penetrating insights into the magic and wondrous delicacy of the human soul.