Miriam Cahn

Swiss artist Miriam Cahn’s exhibition “ME AS HAPPENING” occupies both floors of The Power Plant, a rare accommodation for a venue that generally hosts multiple artists. What merits this expanded attention are the artist’s long career of working originally and skilfully in diverse media and styles, her thematic developments across 50 years, and the visceral, existential and political power of her oeuvre. As Cahn’s international attention grows, audiences here are fortunate to experience her first largescale exhibition in North America.

Miriam Cahn, alltag [everyday life], 19.8.19, pencil and charcoal on paper, 73.7 x 133.4 centimetres. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the artist, Meyer Riegger (Berlin/Karlsruhe), Galerie Jocelyn Wolff (Paris) and The Power Plant, Toronto.

The title, “ME AS HAPPENING,” reflects Cahn’s primary interests— performative embodiment and social equality—both inspired during the ’70s and ’80s by feminist artists who used their bodies and nontraditional performance and video media to challenge patriarchal ideologies and representations. Cahn channelled their strategies through her own media—of painting, drawing, photography, film and text—initially making expressive large-scale drawings with bodily engagement. In a set of seven of these displayed here (1983), Cahn’s hand- and footprints mingle with primal, abstracted figures joined in intimate embrace. The artist’s physical presence continued to throb expressionistically after her shift to painting. Even in her monumental landscapes, nine of which are shown here (2012–2019), mountain ranges appear as fleshy masses. Cahn’s exhibitions themselves can be considered performances, as she often directs the installation process herself, selecting and sequencing her works in situ, making each a unique event. In another sense, Cahn’s work embodies her own life, manifesting her experience at the moment of making. And, unlike the perfect, fully realized art objects fetishized in male art history, Cahn regards her work as perpetually in process, an approach illustrated here through a slide presentation that shows the evolutionary reworking of her pieces. So we can understand many aspects of her work as happenings and perhaps none more so than the first of the six themed exhibition rooms, titled old-I.

Standing inside this close oblong space, surrounded by 24 drawn and painted self-portraits, mostly nude and life-size, feels like a bodily embrace. The intimacy is facilitated, in part, by the artist’s insistence that works hang at eye level, allowing the subject’s and viewer’s eyes to meet. With varying expressions— anger, fear, vulnerability, strength, depression—these bodies press in on the viewer. Anger and resistance are predominant sentiments in Cahn’s work, represented by a set of recurring motifs: clenched fists— bloody-red and agitated, punching the air abstractly or slamming into a recoiling head; grins with demonically bared teeth; and scenes of sexual aggression. In interviews, Cahn cites the shocking slowness of society’s transition toward gender parity, and acknowledges that “anger is a great motivator for art.” These portraits in particular demonstrate Cahn’s alignment with earlier feminist artists who, using nude bodies (their own at times), made alternate and angry art that signalled opposition to the male canon that misrepresented and occluded women. Influential for Cahn was Valie Export, who pointed a submachine gun while costumed in crotchless pants (Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969). Consider also the knife-wielding Martha Rosler, eviscerating the symbols of domestic female servitude in her video Semiotics in the Kitchen, 1975; and Barbara Kruger, whose photomontage Your Body is a Battleground, 1989, designates the body as a soft site where power relations are played out. This is Cahn’s feminist lineage. For her contribution, she traces out the inherent violence within gendered and other power imbalances, making depictions of women, men, children, animals— fighting, fucking, fleeing, birthing, in pain and in pleasure. Her work concentrates the intersection of our most personal desires with the violence of gender and racial hierarchies.

These expressions are found most intensely in two other exhibition rooms. Works displayed under the title having to love depict the terror of human relationships. Our bodies must come together intimately, but, within hierarchical constructs, those meetings take the form of violent collisions. Thirty-six paintings and drawings of varying size are explicit phantasms depicting exaggerated and enflamed genitalia, brutal thrusts of fists on faces, men and women in passionate embrace— whether consensual or aggressive is unclear—or pleasuring themselves. Gender lines are blurred; a powerful punching fist might belong to a woman. Cahn’s technical range is evidenced here: she takes obvious delight in rendering classically chiselled male physiques, voluptuous breasts, engorged clitorises, where elsewhere scenes appear sketchy or stylized; as a colourist her vibrant washes and flourishes recall Gerhard Richter’s abstract work. Some of her faces, originally realistic, are overlaid with cartoonish smiley faces—quickly executed circles and dots of white paint. These different levels of signification—precise realism, imprecise washes, stylized stick figures, sometimes in the same image—suggest the collision of conflicting individual and social desires and experiences.

Miriam Cahn, installation view, left to right: (scheitern beim malen von mick jagger [failing at painting mick jagger], 20.4.19, oil on canvas, 40 x 31 centimetres. o.t. [untitled], 6.11.18, oil on wood, 180 x 90 centimetres. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Cahn, cognizant of an exclusionary, male-dominated art history, insists that women must work hard to insert themselves into it. She pushes on that closed door by showing women as powerful, desiring, even violent. In selfsufficient, 1996–2019, a woman lies on her back pleasuring herself, with a grinning happy face layered over the original. She remakes Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, 1866, depicting a woman’s naked torso. Her wide-open legs explicitly reveal her sex, but her head is covered. In Cahn’s similar composition the woman has an exaggerated clitoris and her grinning smiley face stares out of the frame, as if taunting the original.

Another room, titled having to escape, offers a more eclectic salonstyle display. Pointed attention is given here to the European refugee crisis that continues today to swallow migrants fleeing unsafe homes. Large paintings feature veiled Muslim women and children, their hands held high in fear, or families sinking through blue seas. But fear and danger are universal conditions: mysterious hybrid animals, as both predator and prey, either bare their teeth or exhibit legs with bloody stumps.

In a final enclosure in the upper level gallery, titled sleeping, the trauma suggested elsewhere seems here to settle. In this intimate space a surround of 13 small paintings, each depicting an upper torso or head lying at rest, feels like a soft embrace. Cahn’s varied colour palette makes each sleeper uniquely beautiful; some appear on the edge of being corpses. Bodies in stasis, the dreamers are busy knitting together the horrors of the world. Behind their closed eyes the roiling tensions of the world gestate. Here, in the dreamscape, violent impulses churn and toss about harmlessly. But here also is the space of possibility where, sequestered from the world, harsh desires might be subdued. ❚

“ME AS HAPPENING” was exhibited at the The Power Plant, Toronto, from October 2, 2021, to January 2, 2022.

Jill Glessing, based in Toronto, works in writing and visual art, and teaches academic courses on art history and history of photography at Ryerson University.