Method behind the madness in father and son exhibition

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Family affair: Bernard and Nathan Cohen at Two Journeys exhibition. Credit: Flowers Gallery

Flowers is what I sometimes imagine heaven might be like.

Upon entering the Kingsland Road art gallery, one is immediately engulfed in a pure, milky white glow. The ladies at the desk are well-presented and unassuming, and you have to ring a bell to get in.   

The only colour in sight radiates out from the pieces that hang on the walls. And the current exhibition makes up for the minimalism of its host venue in buckets.  

Two Journeys, an exhibition of the works of father and son Bernard and Nathan Cohen, is a paradoxically gentle assault of colour and shape.

“I’m a local lad and it’s wonderful to be showing in this space at this time.”

One is smacked in the face by a disorientating array sharp-angled polygons, unfollowable lines, loud colour combinations and grand curvatures.

Despite the madness, there is a method.

Nathan Cohen is quick to assure me that, despite some similarities, he and his father are different artists.

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Octet, by Bernard Cohen. Credit: Flowers Gallery

“We approach what we do differently,” he says as we sit on two white chairs, in the eye of this colour-storm.

“I make these painted constructions. Bernard’s always worked within the quadrilateral of the square of the rectangular form.”

He refers to his father by his forename. Whether this is for my benefit or hints at the nature of their relationship, I’m not sure.

“But what I’ve been struck by is how many synergies there are. And that’s not because I’ve been looking at his work and trying to assimilate that into mine or vice versa.”

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Simply from looking around, it is undeniable that they make a formidable team. Despite this, this is the first time they have exhibited together.

“My father has been exhibiting for over 60 years and I have been exhibiting for over 35 years. I guess we’ve shown in different places, with different galleries, at different times so there’s never been that opportunity before.

“Over the years we’ve each followed our own paths as artists. But now that he’s in his eighties and I’m my fifties, perhaps it’s a good time to show the work together.”

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Connections, by Nathan Cohen. Credit: Flowers Gallery

I attempt to suggest an element of friendly competition but he doesn’t bite. “No, it’s never been that way between my father and myself”, he says.

But, surely it’s intimidating exhibiting with your own father – especially when your father is so well-established and so good at what he does.

Bernard Cohen has ten works in the Tate’s permanent collection and is currently being honoured with a Spotlight exhibition at Tate Britain.

“Oh, he is good. But, that means you have to raise your game.”

Nathan followed in his father’s footsteps and decided, of his own accord, to commit to putting a portfolio together when he was fourteen. “It was never a situation where my father sat me down and said: ‘One day, my boy, you’re going to be an artist’.”

He built up a portfolio that gained him entrance into the legendary Slade School of Fine Art. Bernard had also studied there in the 50s and was appointed Director in 1988. I push it and ask who he thinks is better. He laughs.

“I’m not sure if that’s a terribly useful starting point. It’s not about competition. You seem to want to be looking at this from the angle of ‘how do I compete with my dad?’.”

But he was an inspiration at least? “Of course. I think if you just look around…these are a remarkable collection of paintings.

“We approach what we do differently. I make painted constructions, Bernard’s always worked within the quadrilateral”

“I think that has to seep into your bones. It has to be part of the air you breathe if you’re growing up with that. I’ve always been an enormous admirer of my father’s paintings.”

I wonder whether he believes his art carries a message that he would like viewers to take away. I point to one of his abstract works and ask whether he could explain it to me – or whether he feels that’s even necessary.

“I think what I’m hoping is that someone will find something of value or meaning in and of the experience of looking at it themselves.

“Whilst I’m being as clear as I can in my intentions through creating the piece, it’s about the immediacy of that interaction that’s most important. And I want people to feel that they can enjoy the experience of looking at it without feeling they need to have read tomes of art criticism.”

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“Over the years we’ve each followed our own paths as artists. Perhaps it’s a good time to show the work together.” Credit: Hackney Post

Finally, I ask whether exhibiting in Hackney is of any significance to him. He smiles knowingly.

“I knew you were going to ask me this question. I was born here. I was born in Shoreditch. So strictly speaking I’m a cockney – as you can probably tell.

“I’m a local lad and it’s wonderful to be showing in this space at this time. And I do very much hope that the people living here will come and see the show because, as I say, I paint this for everyone.”

Two Journeys is at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road until 5 May 2018.