Steven Cohen, Make-up research, Lille, 24/10/2019, 2019
Courtesy of the artist + Stevenson Gallery
My introduction to Steven Cohen’s work came through my art teacher in Matric. Until that point, I had only focused my attention on drawing, painting, and sculpture in the more traditional sense. My young mind was immediately taken by Cohen’s approach to performance and the idea of the body as a medium. This encounter became a moment of learning through unlearning, with Chandelier (2001-2) as the centrepiece. Photographs of the performance conveyed his ability to provoke with affective delicacy; to play, to connect, to be vulnerable, to seduce and confuse through an amalgamation of beauty and vulgarity.
Fast forward to 2019’s exhibition There’s glitter in my soup! at Stevenson Gallery. Cohen presented a series of self-portraits, carefully constructed with the adhesive tape Cohen used to remove his make-up. The glitter, the butterfly wings, the eyelashes, the imprints of wrinkles in Cohen’s skin. The hurt, intimacy, and physicality of this post-performance ritual were present. Thinking back to where my admiration for Cohen’s work began, being able to share space with these documentations of behind-the-scenes moments inspired a more intimate contemplation of his 3-decades-long performance practice.
The tape self-portrait Make-up research, Lille, 24/10/2019, like its counterparts, appears to be a portrayal of Cohen with his eyes closed. This invokes the idea of closure after a performance, as well as the clarity that occurs when sight is cut off and the mind is allowed to revisit the past. The outlines of Cohen’s face, visible through make-up residue, are repeated across individual pieces of tape, distorting a neat understanding of portraiture and exposing the rigour each part of the face must endure. Through this portrait, we are privy to the inside, the inverse of what the audience witnessed. We are able to zoom in on how the make-up was connected to his skin, how creases were filled with foundation, and how sweat manipulated the integrity of each material’s placement. This representation of the self, from the by-products of the post-performance ritual, links to Cohen’s overarching interrogations: disruption, disturbance, and activation through confrontations with the body, both internal and external.
The duplication of the nose and ears and the elongation of the forehead represent breaking something apart for the creation of something new. Here, the leftovers of performance are legitimised as not only artistic materials, but archival materials; the discarded is elevated to the preserved. Each eyelash, each butterfly wing, each speck of powder is critical, despite its minisculity.
Cohen’s work continuously offers ways for me to engage with ideas of what art is and what it means. This work reveals the significance of the relationship between the body as a medium and the adornments that animate it; how ritual intertwines with repetition and memory; and how the everyday or mundane can become an archive.