written by Anna Nelson after a conversation with Oreen Cohen on May 15th
Oreen combines her personal stories with “other mythologies, symbols and references in attempt to pull it away from [herself], but also to build new connections with the textures and combinations of found materials and through a very physical and direct process of making.” The objects that she uses in her sculptures carry their own histories, like the small metal door she found on the ground in a cemetery in Israel, Oreen’s own cast fingers, wax that filled the hallow hip of a butter lamb mold, and rusting tools like a car jack. These different narratives overlap and come together to form something that - for the duration of its existence - tells a new story, one that Oreen has expertly crafted.
The stand-alone sculpture near the entrance of the gallery, “Bridle,” comes from a time when her parents were trying to arrange her marriage to an Israeli man for a visa. Sensing their attempt to control the direction of her life, she fled back to Pittsburgh, where she stayed with a housemate whose behavior became increasingly possessive. How hard it is to be an independently-minded woman! She escaped that situation, but was forced to abandon a dog she had adopted. These are the things that are meant to silence us and in finding our way out, in working through why it took so long to leave, we find our voices again.
It is not an easy task. Stability can seem unattainable and the work never ending. A simple and elegant piece, “Semash,” is set apart from the chaos of the rest of the show, standing to the side on a bed of rag paper. The sculpture is a large, see-sawing candle holder which clasps a horizontally burning candle with a flame at either end. The dripping wax fuels the movement of the piece as it sways side to side. A candle burning at both ends, oscillating until it eventually burns out.
A flood of her partner’s house in Millvale last year, a fire in her and her partner’s studio which destroyed over $100,000 of equipment as well as her entire library of sourced materials just this month, the utter exhaustion of working as an artist in a city that does not seem to want to support artists... Oreen doesn’t have all of the resources she needs here to be successful, but she is starting to dream of ways to make that happen and move the pieces into a suitable arrangement. She wants to open a collaborative workshop space for artists to work on large-scale sculptures. She is thinking about how to turn her home into an artist residency and will renovate through the summer. And she is working constantly on her own art, with two shows this month (the second being a show of drawings at 707 Gallery downtown), a live performance event to accompany her 707 show on July 12th, and a show of installation art in NYC in the fall for which she is making an enormous rebar sculpture with stained-glass elements.
I heard at the talk last Sunday she spoke about her work being described as “macho”, apparently because she is working with large pieces of metal. It is curious to me that this term gets placed on her work. Her work is doing too much to be classified as proudly masculine. It is too many things relating and too narrative and too nebulous for me to relate this work to the “masculine” qualities of requiring significant brute force and a lack of emphasis on aesthetic beauty. It is not manly because it is made of and with tools. It is work with complicated history and emotional depth and there is something in its resistance to being easily understood, something about the lifespan of the materials being longer than a human life, which speaks to a resistance to being anybody’s knowable, usable object - a very feminist sentiment indeed.