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Charles Cohan: Choosing Adversity

Sailing into 2018,  we all wish each other an easy, pleasant year, free of hardship and struggle.  There are some, however, who relish adversity.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports printmaker Charles Cohan does things the hard way, and the evidence of struggle is invigorating to behold.

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Detail of one of the wood block prints in the Samish series.
Charlie Cohan discusses his work process, his preferences, gallery texts, and the allure of printmaking by hand.

Samish and Converge II are featured in the show, Ground:  New Work by Charles Cohan, on view in the Honolulu Museum of Arts’ Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery through March 25th 2018.  Converge II is a collaboration with former student, now fellow printmaker, Abigail Romanchak.   

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Printmaker Charles Cohan alongside his trusty press in the UH Manoa print studio. Cohan is an Associate Professor and Printmaking Program Chair at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Cohan:  I’m a printmaker.  I’m an old school dyed in the wool, dirty fingered, gnarly hangnail, blistered hands printmaker.  I don’t do any digital work, I don’t do any photography.

Charlie Cohan does primarily wood block printing, stone lithography and metal plate etching,  and engraving,

Cohan:  All very, very physical, rough and tough, old school macho processes where you have to expend energy and weight and pressure and all these things.  The carving of these blocks came out of this tendency of mine at this point in my life anyway as a printmaker I’m working by doing a lot of hand carving, hand carving and hand cutting of things.   

Cohan’s Catherine B. Cox Award exhibition now at the Honolulu Museum of Art features a 10 by 20 foot collaboration with Abigail Romanchak and a collection of twenty two, four by six foot prints and blocks. Big.  The prints and blocks are from his Samish series, depicting black cherry trees on family property in Washington.  They defined the property and were especially beloved by his mother.  About four years ago, she began a decline into memory loss, and about the same time, Cohan noticed the cherries were struck by a blight that would ultimately take their lives.  Those processes became a part of the work.

Cohan:  I’m memorializing a group of trees.  Stark, powerful trees, they’re fruit bearing trees.  They’re gnarly, roughened, they’re tough trees.  It was kind of the simultaneity of her kind of losing everything and these trees going.  So they’re kind of memorials to land, memorials to the place, memorials to my mother.  She loved this grove of trees, the grove kind of defined the site, and the fact they’re non-native kind of interested me.   So I thought, I’ll do an homage to these trees.

What were you looking for in the prints?

Cohan:  Visual intensity?  Visual complexity?  And that’s kind of funny to say visual complexity because they’re black ink on paper, you can’t get much simpler than that.

Wood carving tools. Cohan's favorite is a Swiss made gouge. At the end of his screen printing class, Cohan gives each student a toolkit list for a functioning screen printing studio in a bathroom, garage or closet for under $300.

Cohan:  I think the visual formations have a certain tension in them and within that tension there’s a kind of visual stress or strain.  Because I carved them, the one thing I do see is labor.  If you consider that a hand, a pair of hands, were involved in the making of them, possibly the one aspect of them that could be recognized beyond the visual identity of them as trees is they were a physical labor.  And through that physical labor there’s a time component. And within that the fact it does represent a time period. This represents 2014 to 2017 to me.  It represents three years.

There are no gallery labels for the huge, ruggedly handsome, black and white images.  Cohan says he would rather viewers approach them without text.  Viewers are, of course, free to consult other sources for any information about process or imagery.  The prints don’t look like they came easy. 

Cohan:  Yeah.  There’s a certain resistance I try to find within the work when I’m working.  I would never try to carve anything in a manner that would make it easy.  I tend to almost challenge myself to try to do things in a manner that would lend itself to being more difficult.  That’s one of the aspects of choosing to use hand carving tools rather than motorized carving tools.  I could use Dremel tools and router tools and all kinds of motor driven carving systems but I’ve stayed away with these because I wanted to be just honest and true to the direct relationship between the hand, the tool and the resistance of the wood.  That kind of resistance is something I search for and kind of bounce against a bit.

Are you attracted by machined edges, or hard edged work?

Honolulu Museum of Art
Credit Honolulu Museum of Art
Converge II, included in the Honolulu Museum show, is a collaboration with former student, now fellow printmaker, Abigail Romanchak.

I can appreciate that work, the Superflat movement, anime, that kind of graphic flatness and these (prints) are very graphically flat on a certain level.  To me that work is all good, but I think I respond to work that shows a little bit more physicality or actual kind of gestural power.  Work that’s too clean to me, this is not a value judgment, is clean.  To me in a sense it needs to be roughened up a little bit or it needs to be bounced around, or pushed around a little bit.  It needs to be pulled and torqued, twisted,  if not trashed.    

Cohan does clean work, precise work, primarily in screen printing and lithography, media that do lean toward that sharpened edge, a more controlled visual quality.

Cohan:  When I work in metal plate intaglio such as etching, drypoint, scratching or scraping metal, or the large wood cuts, partially because of the size, there’s imperfections. 

I want there to be a visceral quality to them.  It’s more about a guttural kind of physicality, if you can feel the visceral nature of the form, through the carving or through the density, the heaviness of the ink or through just the physicality of the plates.  The process of printing these is one where the blocks are run under a press at about 2000 pounds of pressure per square inch.  So that sheer pressure, that 200 psi pressure that’s going down on the blocks is very important.  These are all printed with heavy pressure, very heavy pressure, and to me it makes the image more indelible.  It makes the image more substantiated kind of as a material. 

Cohan:  There‘s something about seeing ink that’s pressed into a sheet of thick cotton European mold made paper at 2000 pounds per square inch, I believe in that image more.  I can trust that image more.  It’s not ethereal, it’s not ephemeral, it’s locked in, locked down, doesn’t have a choice, can’t be erased, can’t be changed.   And the imperfections are involved in that because I’m hand carving.  None of these prints are perfect, and I think that imperfection is something that I’m also interested in, the latent imperfection of the hand making of images. 

Honolulu Museum of Art
Credit Honolulu Museum of Art
The Samish Series is featured in the show, Ground: New Work by Charles Cohan, on view in the Honolulu Museum of Arts’ Arts of Hawaii Gallery through March 25th 2018.

To me as a maker, it may sound cliché, but it’s the hand making, the hand making of something.  Not to say that digital images are not handmade or photographs are not handmade, it’s a different type of making.  Unless I’m getting my hands dirty, unless I’m getting blisters, unless I’m getting physically engaged with the materiality and the process on a level where there is stress and strain and pressure and staining, blistering, I don’t really feel like I’m making anything.  I need that resistance, I need that physical nature of things.

In life as in art, maybe evidence of struggle is not a bad thing.

Read more about the Honolulu Museum exhibition on their blog.

Flux magazine featured Cohan's work.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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