Amy Cohen Banker, Essay I

By Michael Amy

Amy Cohen Banker’s paintings are so ripe with feeling that the size, format and two-dimensional nature of her supports seem incapable of preventing this artist’s emotions from spilling beyond the confines of easel painting.  This is just as it should be, as we want our Expressionist artists to transcend boundaries -loudly and exuberantly.  Cohen Banker, after all, draws a great deal of inspiration from her experience of nature, ranging from its multifarious forms to its primal energies, and both nature’s forms and energies, are -as we all know- able to veer beyond set patterns.  That is how Mount Everest and the Grand Canyon originated, and how our thousands of species developed over time.  This is called evolution.  Things do not originate in a vacuum.  It is all one continuum, and all things are in a state of flux.
Cohen Banker moves easily from abstraction towards a loose figuration from one painting to the next, and delves happily into a grab bag of approaches ranging from early 20th century German Expressionism to post war Abstract Expressionism, European peinture informelle, and the Japanese Gutai group, thereby upsetting traditional expectations having to do with decorum and good taste.  For those with a stomach for Pollock and/or de Kooning often have great difficulty with the work of the so-called second generation Abstract Expressionists, and certainly with that of European artists of the order of Wols or Georges Mathieu, or the Japanese artists Shozo Shimamoto or Jiro Yoshihara.  You supposedly cannot have it both ways, but Cohen Banker happily wants it all, even veering from the abject to the outright sensuous and decorative, in the line of Pierre Bonnard or Wolf Kahn.

Witness Eden, which reaches back to Soutine -a major source for de Kooning, and thus for Action Painting- with its meaty textures and torn slabs and shards of oil, mottled with nervous open brushwork and a lavender drip.  In such works, Cohen Banker comes up with juxtapositions of forms and colors that should not work, but miraculously do.  Eden evokes innards –this artist brings what lies inside, to the surface.  It also gives form to a fiery landscape.  It’s a painting that both looks forward and back, as the best type of art always does.

The mood of Ondine is very different, as this painting evokes the madness of a cruel sea, foaming with rage, as it breaks upon beige rock or sand on the right.  Paracelsus, who wrote on alchemy during the Renaissance, called the elemental of water an undine (or ondine), which he understood as being a water spirit.  In the painting, the sun at the top left splinters apart, casting a glow at the center as red and black as burning coals, while a pink form –a descendant of de Kooning’s Pink Angels- a water spirit perhaps, anchors the composition at the top right.  Painting is alchemy.  Cohen Banker does not let us forget this, as her forms contract and expand, melt and solidify, and teeter between abstraction and scraps of figuration.

Michael Amy, Ph.D.
Professor of the History of Art
College of Imaging Arts & Sciences
Rochester Institute of Technology

International Association of Art Critics (AICA)