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Miriam Cahn

Swiss artist makes her North American debut at Toronto’s Power Plant



From ME AS HAPPENING, Photograph Courtesy of Power Plant

At the entrance to the Power Plant’s second level is a large video screen playing what could be described as a high-quality GIF of familiar paintings changing, through a series of overcoats, into the works just seen downstairs.  The title of Miriam Cahn’s first major North American solo show of paintings and films at Toronto’s Power Plant, Me As Happening, captures this realization that everything seen before is a moment in an unfolding process. It may be the chance to see them like this as every decision, brush stroke, or wash of colour—even subjecthood—is impermanent. It won’t be easy going back. 

Miriam Cahn’s work is demanding: her

monumental landscapes are overwhelming and her smaller works have a hot intensity that makes them difficult to encounter. The first room, a collection of life-sized nude figures and portraits of aging subjects, titled altich [English title: old-I], is completely unsentimental and captivating. The 2019 trio of nude figures—one titled was ich sehe ist nicht was ich fühle [what i see is not what i feel] and the other two titled so fühle ich mich [this is how I feel]—with washed pastels backgrounds and the details of the face reduced to the zero-point of identification, a single line or coloured smudge by Cahn manages to tell you everything.

From ME AS HAPPENING, Photograph Courtesy of Power Plant

The next space is the room of large landscapes, hier wohne ich [this where I live], which are awesome depictions of Swiss mountains and cityscapes in austere greys and chemical fluorescents. The massive GEZEICHNET [DRAWN] (2014) was worth the journey in itself (since admission at Power Plant is free) with its stony sky and foreground. It grabs the eye with wispy mountain edges that lead to a charcoal-coloured wound in its centre.

From ME AS HAPPENING, Photograph Courtesy of Power Plant

The east wing has the two rooms—lieben müssen [having to love] and flüchten müsseen [having to escape]—that are most explicitly political, depicting the intersections of violence, sex, race, and the precarity experienced by those seeking refuge in a hypocritically xenophobic Europe. Harsh reds and active lines surround their subjects. It is here where the upstairs video of her process is most instrumental. Faces are painted over and redrawn, most explicitly in vergnügenzeigen [showing pleasure] (2018), which renders expressions of ecstasy, or agony, as incomprehensible or untrustworthy.

Cahn’s work never congratulates itself for its subject matter and can be as cartoonish as it is tragic. Cahn leaves the audience’s feelings to the audience, as what we see may not be what we feel.


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