Photo artists Lynne Cohen and Jim Breukelman excel at eerily detailed, human-less settings

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      Lynne Cohen: These Walls
      At the Burnaby Art Gallery as part of the Capture Photography Festival until April 21

      Jim Breukelman: Altered States
      At the West Vancouver Art Museum as part of the Capture Photography Festival until May 11

      Some intriguing likenesses exist between the careers of Jim Breukelman and the late Lynne Cohen. Both photographic artists grew up in the United States and completed art studies there. Both landed in Canada decades ago to take up academic appointments and both stayed, Breukelman in Vancouver and Cohen in Ottawa and then Montreal. While working as esteemed and influential educators, both established creative reputations with their highly detailed images of human-made settings, rendered eerily symbolic by the complete absence of people. Rather than construct sets or fictionalize situations Vancouver School–style, both Cohen and Breukelman have shot their subjects as found.

      Cohen’s acclaimed images of deserted interiors range from health spas to lawn-ornament warehouses, and from dance halls to military training centres. On view at the Burnaby Art Gallery in conjunction with the Capture Photography Festival, Lynne Cohen: These Walls spans the years 1970 to 2005. Her works transition from small gelatin silver prints to large-scale dye coupler prints, and from images whose titles fully describe what they depict—Elks Club after Bingo, Battle Creek, Michigan or Lobby in a Textile Factory, Toronto—to shots of more institutional spaces identified generically as, say, Laboratory or Hall. The titles of the later works are intentionally unrevealing as Cohen sought out interiors inaccessible to most of us and, at the same time, charged with a kind of ominous authoritarianism. They suggest activities of manipulation, experimentation, and control, and the artist’s intense research in locating and gaining access to these sites is an important subtext here.

      Early on, what binds Cohen’s images together is their sense of banal artifice and their stage-set-like compositions, amplified by the wide, empty floors in the foreground and middle ground. Similar compositional strategies often shape the later works, although the mood evoked by the unexplained maps, charts, pipes, screens, wires, and training pods now suggests the sets of low-budget sci-fi films. In a couple of images, half-mannequins stand in for people, yet what takes place in many of these settings remains a mystery. As other writers have suggested, what is seen in Cohen’s remarkable photographs is given scary narrative weight by what is unseen.

      Four bodies of work, from old to new, are represented in Jim Breukelman: Altered States, the West Vancouver Art Museum’s engaging contribution to the Capture festival. There are large-scale photographs of interiors here too, including those of a taxidermy shop, a conservatory, and an aging biosphere or “mesocosm”, built to study ways in which humans might survive on other planets. Like Cohen’s labs and classrooms, each of Breukelman’s chosen settings carries an ominous symbolic charge. That charge, which is subtle and grows out of the artist’s curiosity rather than condemnation, relates to the human manipulation of the natural world: the weird assortment of unnervingly live-looking dead animals in the taxidermy shop and the various mixes of plants and ecosystems staged in the biosphere and the conservatory. Given that the biosphere, located in Oracle, Arizona, is now being used to study the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, the sense prevails of our massively destructive impact on the natural world.

      As in Cohen’s photos, human beings are absent in three of the four series on view in Altered States, yet human presence is intensely felt. The big surprise here, however, is in “Sanson’s Diner”, the earliest series in the show and also the featured works in this minisurvey. Shot in 1966 in an old-fashioned, blue-collar diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, while Breukelman was an art student, these engaging black-and-white images focus on patrons and staff. An underlying current is what must have been opposing views held by the counterculture of the artist’s generation and the older factory workers, truckers, and travellers who patronized the place.

      Jim Breukelman's After Life at the West Vancouver Art Museum


      As Breukelman writes in the slender but illuminating exhibition catalogue, the mid-1960s were a time of immense social change and political protest, and conversations in the diner could escalate into angry arguments. Breukelman’s attachment to the place, it seems, had more to do with its staff than its patrons and their role in “moderating” heated exchanges. Moderating or perhaps reprimanding, as seen in the severe expression on the face of a waitress in The Telling-Off.

      Remaining behind the camera, Breukelman doesn’t let us know if he had long hair and wore a bandanna. One suspects he did, but what is evident here, as in all his work, is his enduring compassion and humanity, and his ability to let his scenes—populated or not—reflect on themes far beyond their physical walls.

      Jim Breukelman's Mesocosm 5 at the West Van Art Museum.