When glass artists Anna Boothe and Nancy Cohen collaborated in 2017 on a series of sculptures their work reflected the use of thangka, a type of Tibetan Buddhist painting that represents a Buddhist deity or religious imagery. The two artists chose symbols and translated them into three-dimensional forms, creating a visual reinterpretation of the paintings.
Now Booth and Cohen are continuing that collaboration in an Arts Council of Princeton exhibition, “Colloquy,” running Saturday, October 13, through Saturday, December 8. The title refers to a conversation or dialogue.
As essayist Jonathan Goodman says, this type of Buddhist imagery combing a strong central image and a strong complex design “has been a part of American thinking and making for more than two generations now, so Boothe and Cohen belong to a well-established tradition in contemporary American art. Their work, a subtle combination of materials and ideas, feeds the notion of a dialogue — both between the two artists and between the artists and the world, the subjective laboratory that makes up their domain. Buddhist art tends to demonstrate the benefits of loss of self, while contemporary art is often about personal assertion.”
Goodman says the artists’ attempt to merge self-negation and self-assertion presents a challenge complicated by the idea that the artists share an aesthetic approach and preference for materials, which is not necessarily true.
Boothe and Cohen began working on large-scale glass installations during a residency at Corning Museum of Glass in 2012. Today, according to Goodman, the two create a “large wall of imagery” that offers organic abstractions, some mechanical-looking images or “fragments of a divine machine.”
Nevertheless, he says the randomness of the imagery “attains a holistic unity when looked at from a distance or over time.”
The Accola Griefen Gallery in Brooklyn notes the two artists also use “an astounding range of glass processes including kiln-casting, slumping, fusing, blowing, hot-sculpting, and sand-casting” to create their art.
Goodman says the two artists have made it clear that while they are not religious seekers Buddhist principles can apply to their art. “Buddhism is more about a process — an ongoing searching — than it is about achieving a specific religious insight, and the audience senses, on seeing this wall of discrete images, that the works are intended to be seen as artworks possessing a spiritual outlook.”
That includes works Goodman says can create “visual unease,” such as “Petal Pose,” described as “overtly phallic” and consisting of “violently red tumescent head surrounded by a green stem and leaves.” However, the work “also underscores the fact that the spirituality and natural imagery that Boothe and Cohen make use of can sustain different points of view” and “sometimes eroticism can replace piety.”
Independently the two have trained extensively and work in different venues. Boothe, whose work is in the Corning Museum of Glass, Tacoma Museum of Art, and private collections, holds a MFA from Tyler School of Art and was a member of the glass program faculty for 16 years. She is now the director of glass at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia and lives in Zieglerville, Pennsylvania.
Cohen’s work is in the New Jersey State Museum, Zimmerli Museum, Montclair Art Museum, and at the Yale University Art Museum. She has a MFA from Columbia and lives in Jersey City.
About her individual approach, Boothe says, “Glass, as a material, is appropriate for what I seek to express because it is capable of conveying the simultaneous strength and fragility, as well as the translucency, or degree of visibility, of these associations. I’m 30 years into my love affair with this elusive stuff and there is so much more to explore.”
Cohen shares some of the same sentiment. “At the core of my work is the intense contradiction between fragility and strength, both in our personal lives and in the broader environment. My working methods merge material and formal concerns with content to explore the interplay of these ideas. I counterpose skin and structure, exploit extreme imbalances in weight, incorporate light into physical constructions. All of this allows me to make literal the delicate, ephemeral balance of my subjects.”
Touching on another duality, Goodman writes, “Desire and spiritual matters both come together in the show. In the long run, what is most important about this body of work is its collaborative manufacture, its spiritual insight, and its interpretation of another culture. These things indicate an openness toward culture and art that invests Boothe and Cohen’s work with real dignity and insight. We are living in a time when depth is missing from culture, but the artists here are offering exactly that.”
Colloquy, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. October 13 through December 8. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gallery talk Saturday, October 13, 2 to 3 p.m., followed by an opening reception, 3 to 5 p.m. Free admission. 609-924-8777 or artscouncilofprinceton.org.