May 27th 2014
Photo: Log Bridge painted by Alex Cohen
My father, uncle and brother attended Camp Powhatan on the pine-guarded shores of Pleasant Lake in Otisfield, Maine. In 1988, when I was eight years old, I too began to spend my summers there. I found the simple life of routine play was made immeasurably complex by the lore, legacy and ritual that saturated every bit of its cloistered community. The design of the camp again was deceivingly simple; the boys were divided by age into a string of spartan bunks, each one guarded by two slightly older boys. The days were divided by activities, mostly athletic, interrupted only by weather, injury and special competitions. Behind that scenario was some unspoken and vague scheme of molding us into capable persons, or men even. As abstract as that impetus was, it imparted a sense of meaning that set our cult in motion.
My camp days were vivid cocktails of high voltage emotion. The last days of each camp season were reserved for a culminating fracas that divided the camp into red and grey teams, hence the name—color war. It arrived half expectedly with counselors barging in on dinner to rile us up and shout cheers. Later there was a more official and theatrical entrance of the coaches wherein the campers were designated their teams and any semblance of rational behavior was set aside. There were ceremonious retellings of curiously appropriated Native American war stories, spirited meetings, spectacular contests in all sport including steal the bacon, and no showering for the three days until a winner was declared. Upon victory, the winners ran fully clothed and feverishly into the lake followed by the droopy, devastated losing team. Reconciliation was made through ablution.
The color war brought out the best and worst of us in hyperbolic fashion. The full range of human capacity for heroism and scoundrelism were illustrated in those three days; reinforced by the lyrics of ACDC songs. It inspired the most delirious expectations, fervent camaraderie, searing pride and profound sense of loss —for many of us being the high water mark for childhood.
In the recent years of my painters’ life I’ve returned to the camp-site trying to document the potent geography and digest the varied experiences I have had there. I’ve been interested foremost with the physical beauty of this place—the way it integrates humbly constructed buildings with the natural elements of lakeside wilderness, the perspective of scale and distances afforded by long views of lake, field and dirt road, the wear of time and evidence everywhere of youthful activity. But I am also quite engaged in retracing those early emotional paradigms. Back in the studio I study these paintings and use them to distill sentimentality into a thing I can hold at arms length and prod with curiosity.
Sentimentality is a volatile force and must be approached with trepidation because it can yield some of the worst and best painting. The power of a sentimental reaction can make its painted counterpart register too quickly in the viewer’s mind, its effect too banal and easy. Too much is assumed in such images and like a photographed sunset the experience far surpasses the retelling. Paintings may be a portal to the past but it should not be dismissed that they are forever in the present and any painterly message that conveys “I was there” should also bear in mind the coda “I am here”. Better yet, let it be a painterly question, “ was I really there, am I really here”.
Sentimentality and nostalgia (its footman) are often kept in check with attempts at objective realism. Empirical evidence of beauty and meaning can balance our felt assertions. But relying too much on empirical evidence ducks the soul out of a painting. So it becomes a battle trying to get at old feelings without tipping the balance too much in either direction.
In this spirit I have been trying to approach these paintings not simply as reflections of camp experience but to use those camp experiences to make the paintings. I’m trying to reawaken that youthful vigor and paint as though I were in the heat of color games. I want to push myself from dawn ‘til dusk to exceed my limitations and set aside aesthetic temperance. It is essential to stifle adult self-awareness and let melodrama reign in this exercise, for the vision celebrated in a painting is contingent on a certain blindness towards contradictory evidence.
Even at age ten, I recall climbing the great boulder at camp to look out over the lake and wonder at the changes since the previous summers. Countless times after that I conducted the ritual of looking out into that familiar distance, a visual metaphor of both past and future. And so it is at the easel.