by Shirle Gottlieb

"Yearning for Perfection,"
iris print, 1998.

"Leave-Taking," a/c, 3 x 4',1998.

(University Art Museum, California State University Long Beach) "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." And then again, you might not. That seems to be the underlying theme of Returning to Ordinary Life, Eileen Cowin's first solo museum exhibit in the Los Angeles area since 1985.

No one ever knows how anything will turn out. Life is so full of tension, random danger and chaos, it is totally unpredictable. The most insignificant, benign event has the potential within it to become a disaster. Especially for those who blithely wish for a silver lining, wish for their heart's desire, wish for a happy ending.

In this new body of work, Cowin continues her ongoing exploration of the power of photography; but now she has incorporated the mythic dimension of fairy tales into her dramatic, open-ended visual essays. It's a case of fantasy and illusion versus reality and our distorted perception of it.

To be specific, in her new video, Scarcely had they uttered those words. . ., Cowin's contemporary imagery is permeated with metaphors that reference Western culture's two thousand year-old memory, dreams, and collective unconscious.

Like legends, fables, and Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey," fairly tales often center around the wish, the quest, the discovery. But the pursuit of such goals often involves grave danger, even death. It is on this mythic level that emotional, visceral, intellectual, and psychological connections are made. It is also here, that the transformational powers of art take place.

Cowin's latest video, projected directly on the museum wall, is meant to make you feel off-balance, disquieted, disturbed. By using a series of close-up, intimate, fragmented images that are juxtaposed with figures staring off into the distance she invites us, the viewers, to interact and write our own narration. Like the quiet before the storm, or the silence that screams from an Ingmar Bergman movie, we sense impending danger and search inside ourselves for what will happen next.

Whether Scarcely had they uttered those words. . . works for you, personally, depends on who you are and what experiences you bring to it. On the one hand, you may feel that the video concludes with ". . .then lo and behold, the skies parted and their wish had been granted." But it's highly unlikely. Chances are better that Cowin's work will strike a resonating chord and you'll share an affinity for this threatening, contemporary, all-too-familiar cliff-hanger.

In addition to her video installation, Cowin's new work consists of several photographic series that extend the dialogue of Returning to Ordinary Life. In Yearning for Perfection, a provocative, black and white diptych, the top image depicts a calm ocean with the title printed over it, while the bottom picture captures the silhouette of a woman staring out at the same view. On her back is an enigmatic message, "Don't be overly suspicious where it's not warranted."

She seems to sum up the all-pervasive theme of her exhibit in two iris prints titled Between Panic and Paradise. That's where the stark drama of human reality is found--in the nitty-gritty gray tones of everyday "ordinary life"--not in the black and white extremes that exist on either end.