By Michaël Amy
In a well-known passage in his treatise on painting, first published in Latin in 1435 and then in the Florentine vernacular the following year, Leon Battista Alberti recommended that painters abandon the use of gold in their paintings for the illusion or imitation of the precious metal, for creating a simulacrum of the radiance of gold in painting is more difficult to achieve -and is, thus, more praiseworthy- than applying the actual stuff onto the support. Additionally, paint, when expertly handled to render objects or light, does not have the flattening, surface-stressing, and tonally distorting effects the metal itself has when applied onto panel.
The above-mentioned passage from De Pictura comes to mind when seeing Lion’s Mouth and Padparadscha, in which Amy Cohen Banker approaches the problem of gold in painting from two different angles. In the former picture, a golden acrylic is boldly and unevenly applied across a red ground, so that in some areas we have a thickening of the medium while in other places it is translucent or has partly dried on the brush during application, leaving broken swipes of matter behind. Precious gold was traditionally applied with great precision because of its rarity, and symbolized the divine and/or courtly culture. (It was also, significantly enough, applied onto a red ground, to give it greater warmth and depth). In Cohen Banker’s picture executed with synthetic paint, however, we have a devil-may-care attitude towards what is in fact an illusion of precious matter. The areas of greatest richness are the viscous ones where red comes wriggling to the surface, like living organisms.
Padparadscha, on the other hand, evokes the warm glow of gold by way of yellow paint, though the title of this picture is the name of a pink-orange sapphire. This liquefying picture evokes a map, and thus the world seen from above, with rich resources, as yet untapped. Stated differently, this painting turns both us and the painting –within the realm of our imaginations- at a ninety-degree angle, so that we can look down onto this picture, from above. Padparadscha’s cousin Mysterious Island -with its title taking us from Homeric epic, through Elizabethan tragedy, to H. G. Wells and Hergé- suggests that our reading of the other picture may be correct, as its flow of pigment evokes land-masses shot from a satellite, with the stark differentiation in color and unusual palette serving to clearly distinguish part from part, as it does in those types of photographs, thereby increasing their legibility. These two pictures take us back to the first style in Roman painting -in which slabs of moist plaster were painted and polished to resemble mixed marble- as well as to André Masson’s and Jackson Pollock’s experiments with poured medium.
The lovely La Gioconda builds a bridge towards other, somewhat later developments in abstraction, namely to Helen Frankenthaler’s poured and stained canvases, and the elegiac tones of late Mark Rothko. La Gioconda is all about subtlety, with its dark blue and green brushed into the weave of the canvas, and its bold, highly saturated blue splotch, appearing as an accident, over reminiscences in beige-gold and red in the bottom left. Landscape of the mind. The work’s title takes us back to what is possibly the most famous of western paintings, namely Leonardo da Vinci’s early Cinquecento, bust-length portrait of a young woman, now at the Louvre. La Gioconda is also the title of a nineteenth century opera by Amilcare Ponchielli, that takes place in Venice -where landscape painting was reborn during the Renaissance, under Giorgione, and from which genre Kandinsky caused abstraction to materialize in easel painting in 1911. Ponchielli’s opera deals –unsurprisingly- with the theme of love and sacrifice. The connections between Cohen Banker’s abstract composition, with its muted color harmonies, Ponchielli’s opera and Leonardo’s renowned painting seem apposite, for the latter includes an imaginary landscape. Significantly, the first act of the grande opera is titled The Lion’s Mouth, which is the title of the picture that opened this discussion.
As the connections between Roman and Renaissance culture on the one hand, and contemporary American abstract painting on the other, may seem somewhat farfetched, I should like to bring an additional picture into the mix. The Golden House is a square composition that is bisected diagonally by a field of gold overlaid with a range of marks executed in blue and olive-green –the other half of the picture has a red ground overlaid with blue strokes and white filigrané. The title of this work –chosen, once again, by the artist- takes us back to the third act in Ponchielli’s opera, titled Ca’ d’Oro, after the magnificent palace erected in 1430 in the Gothic style on the Grand Canal in Venice. The title of Cohen Banker’s picture also evokes the Domus Aurea, so revolutionary in design and so memorably described by Suetonius in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The Emperor Nero’s palace at the foot of the Palatine Hill in Rome was: “Overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and mother-of-pearl. All the dining-rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, shower upon [Nero’s] guests”. The discovery of Nero’s Golden House -with its well preserved mural paintings and stucco decorations- circa 1480, had a major impact upon the development of Renaissance art in Europe, witness the genesis of grotesque ornament, the echoes of which we find in Cohen Banker’s open calligraphy -which is, admittedly, more strongly inspired by Eastern and Abstract Expressionist brushwork. The delicate linear patterns of the Ca’ d’Oro and the passage from Suetonius add, nevertheless, an extraordinary dimension to Cohen Banker’s picture.
Blue Flower 3 is a less lyrical and more haptic picture, as intense as an explosion. With its emphasis on the materiality of paint, it reminds us of the parallel that was once drawn between the act of painting and the mixing of sauces. Cohen Banker’s palette, however, takes us away from fine French cuisine and back to American Pop Art, and more specifically to the early plaster or papier maché sculpture of banal foodstuffs by Claes Oldenburg, onto which thick, unguent enamel was slapped -witness the ketchup red, the mustard brown, and the white as frothy as whipped cream, in Blue Flower 3. (In light of this reading, Blue Flower 3 could be the name of a diner -Wayne Thiebaud’s early hunting ground). This is painting with a burp. Less is not always more. Blue Flower 3 is as gluttonous as a Roman emperor or the French Renaissance author François Rabelais’ antiheroes Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Forsythia is executed with seemingly swift, feathery, almost diaphanous brushstrokes, applied towards the center and top right of the canvas and leaving large areas of the support bare along the edges of the composition. A quality of breathing intimating at life is achieved, in a picture that takes something from Futurism’s desire to convey the impression of movement by way of paint, and from Mondrian’s stunning early watercolors of seemingly melting, and thus putrefying, flowers. In Forsythia, the brown of soil, wood and decay slowly dominates the glowing yellow of the blooms.
Cohen Banker invites us to connect the dots.
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)