Not-Quite-Beauty

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

"Searching for my Prince," 2006 Hand-stitched embroidery, applique and paint on vintage print table linen , 70 x 60 inch. Courtesy Charlie James Gallery.

Orly Cogan is searching for the feminist beauty queen. Her strategy involves backtracking, returning to the same matronly craftiness embraced by members of Womanhouse a quarter of a century ago. That’s only sensible. Beauty queens and “the cutting-edge” do not go hand-in-hand. Case in point: this year’s freshly crowned Miss USA may have been the first Arab-American to take the title and the first to unwittingly promote birth control for all, but she still won viewers’ affection with a by-the-bootstraps story—she sold her car to pay for her dream—and still looked like a small-town prom queen in her strapless, wedding-white evening gown. Cogan’s work, in which figures rarely wear gowns if they wear anything at all, does not have the Horatio-Alger-style gumption of Miss USA but it has a homegrown wholesomeness that even its narrative deviance can’t suppress. Its crafty, colorful stitching seems better suited to a 4-H booth at the county fair than a white-walled art space.

At Charlie James Gallery, Cogan’s tapestries and hand-stitched pillows flank a potluck-style table loaded with crocheted cakes and doily cupcakes. A white shelving unit to the table’s left holds pillows that sport messages like “It’s not me, it’s you” and “You’re not really what we’re looking for” stitched in a childlike hand. While endearing in the same way Miranda July’s idiosyncratically confessional titles are endearing, the pillows’ self-consciousness contradicts the rest of the exhibition’s guilelessness.

"East of Eden," 2008, Hand-stitched embroidery and paint on vintage linen, 24 x 80 inches. Courtesy Charlie James Gallery.

Searching for My Prince, a symmetrical scene embroidered on vintage table linen (Cogan often reworks old materials), would still pass for a table cloth if not for the naked and near-naked pair of figures leaning into the blue oval at the image’s center. The blond women, who, like many of the figures in Cogan’s work are Doppelgangers for Cogan herself, pucker up to kiss a small green frog, while a spattering of additional frogs strain to watch. It’s fairyland meets Hicksville, since the slightly used, wrinkled surface of the linen and the womanly bodies, one clad in a loose-fitted pink bikini, make the frog-kissing seem tawdry. (Magic never seems as magical when it hasn’t been air-brushed.)

In East of Eden, fairy characters reappear, this time accompanied by figures with Biblical portentousness and about as much inhibition as the locals of a nudist colony. There are abandoned tires, pregnant women and a disproportionate number of frogs, though Steinbeck did mention toads early on in his version of East of Eden. Steinbeck also said that “it would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable,” but that actually, routine time flies, as it does in Cogan’s yellowed, panoramic tapestry. Figures lounge in yards, touch themselves, cuddle, bicker and just exist. Whole generations seem to grow up inside their languor. Figures begin to overlap one another, and houses grow in on each other. Picket fences impinge on log cabins.

"The Affair," 2004, Hand-stitched embroidery and paint on vintage print table linen, 68 x 51 inch. Courtesy Charlie James Gallery.

More Henry Darger than Tracy Emin, and more Miriam Schapiro than Ghada Amer, Cogan’s work is less concerned with bucking the art world than sidestepping technology. Her linens and embroidery suggest that material progress doesn’t necessarily equal human progress. That same logic informed the Pattern and Decoration movement that emerged in the 1970s. Minimalism had been materially sophisticated, employing Anodised aluminium, painted steel or zinc plates. But it had omitted a whole range of textural, sentimental experiences that artists like Schapiro and Joyce Kozloff re-embraced. Holland Cotter noted, reviewing Hudson River Museum’s Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art in 2008, “most P&D art isn’t beautiful and never was, not in any classical way. . . . And not-quite-beauty is exactly what saved it, what gave it weight.”

Not-quite-beauty, at least the way it manifests in Cogan’s work, still has some edge to it. It’s awkward, dated, homely and possibly oblivious to a few generations of institutional critique and art-about-art that preceded it. But the beauty queen Cogan is looking for isn’t ambitious or sleekly intellectual; she’s more of a potpourri, pulling from everything hearty, domestic, raunchy and defiant.

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