Cohn’s counter-reformation

Cohn_2008_Blood For Oil 2

Cohn_2008_Blood For Oil 2

Susan Cohn Blood for Oil 2, tubing and fake blood, 2008 (Image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery)

Second Thoughts is quite a surprising show from Susan Cohn. Previous shows like Black Intentions have has quite specific sociological agendas in the way they situate jewellery within a social function or ritual, like mourning. One of the remarkable elements of Cohn’s jewellery is the way she is able to ‘marry’ the social purpose with a rigorous modernist approach to making. Her modernist does not lead to sterile abstractions. Her jewellery engenders confidence not only that as something that can be trusted with a personal story, but also can work well as an piece of ornament.

In Second Thoughts, Cohn selects the sash as a form for investigation. It’s a particular rich choice, with associations of official title as well as a form that envelopes the body. There are some hallmark Cohn elements such as re-purposing technical materials, such as body bags and pipettes. In relation to other Australian jewellers, Cohn’s use of ‘sourced’ materials is relatively unique. These are not found materials that she gleans from her immediate environment, but rather manufactured products that require her to engage as a maker with fellow makers in the factories of outer Melbourne.

But surprisingly for Cohn are recycled and found materials. The signature piece is made from old Black Intentions catalogues. She has also collected the metal tops of champagne and wine bottles that now now decorate sash forms. These materials introduce a sentimentality which seems quite new in Cohn’s work. Taking a few steps back, on the eve of the first Earth Hour, they perhaps echo the ‘second thoughts’ being now experienced in the first world about the benefits of economic growth.

Cohn_2008_install 1

Cohn_2008_install 1

Susan Cohn Black Intentions Anna Schwartz Gallery 2008 (Image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery)

This re-consideration is emphasised by the ironic display furniture.  Works are shown on black velvet resting loosely over card tables. Cohn has chosen the stereotyped demotic frame of outdoor craft market for the interior of Melbourne’s most ultra-modernist contemporary art space. You feel that Cohn seeks out the clash of sensibilities.

But even more surprisingly at the end of Cohn’s exhibition, are two pieces using plastic tubing normally associated with medical procedures. In both works, she has injected fake blood (sourced from a local magic shop). The result is quite elegant, with the blood and air forming natural beads in the plastic. But the theatrical effect of these pieces at the end of Cohn’s series is at odds with the more scientific feel of previous shows.

I couldn’t help feeling that Cohn’s turn here was like a counter-reformation, where the rituals of the Catholic mass, such as transubstantiation, began to make their way back into Christian workshop after the austerity of German Protestantism. One can’t help associating the series of black tableaus along the gallery with the stations of the cross. Its quite a surprising move, but adds weight to the journey that precedes it. It shows Cohn as an artist who continues to be alive to her craft.


If you have the chance it is worth also visiting the New08 show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. You will see a selection of contemporary visual art that has retreated from the world into a kind of Play School innocence. Some institutions seem to position visual art as a radical way of re-thinking the world, yet end up with what amounts to a crèche for the white fortress. With Susan Cohn’s show, you certainly are reminded of how it might be otherwise.

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