Thursday, 23 February 2012

Dance Me To The End Of Love

Drabinsky Gallery
114 Yorkville Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
M5R 1B9
February 2011

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

The Living Poet

The Drabinsky Gallery in Toronto hosted an art exhibit entitled "Drawn to Words: Visual Works from 40 Years" in the spring of 2007. It was the first public exhibition of the art of Leonard Cohen. 40 private drawings (from doodles on napkins to digital images initially drawn on a wooden Wacom tablet), made over the past 40 years for the soul amusement of Cohen and his friends, finally saw the public light of day five ago this coming May 2012.
     Friends and fans alike showed up at the gallery for the opening of the exhibit that spring, then located at 122 Scollard Street. As they emerged from their black stretch limos parked in front of the gallery the artist of the moment was conspicuous by his absence. Seemingly out of nowhere a lone figure was eventually spotted walking down Scollard Street toward Drabinsky Gallery. It was Cohen. Like the "kind and powerful" Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Cohen is a man who obviously likes to walk to his work. The New York Times said of him in 1973 that "you are sometimes rewarded with a poet's profound thoughts, sometimes with a pop star's put-on." Was Cohen playing the ironic trickster here, brashly courting public success by pretending to privately ignore it? Then again, maybe this very living poet was just being fashionably late.
     Four years later the gallery hosted another exhibit of Cohen's work in February 2011 called "Dance me to the end of love." It consisted of eight prints drawn from the original "Drawn to Words" exhibit. Cohen described these prints in the Upper Gallery as an instance of "transcendent decoration." This remark hints at his artistic hermeneutic, and indicates the reason why his work can, and should, be read as a concrete response to the abstract expressionist work of someone like Harold Town (whose work was retrospectively shown for the opening gala of Drabinsky Gallery in 1990).
     Pop art does not invite abstract analysis, nor does it necessarily require it. Cohen's own brand of decorative pop invites us to surface our attention upon objects that are ready-to-hand so we can confront the thingness of ready-made-things. "I have always loved things," Cohen once said, "just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things." If 'love' is another word for paying attention, then Cohen's exhibit clears the floor to dance us to the end of his own attentiveness: self-portraits, lost spectacles, a red guitar, and the seductive surface of the female form. His end becomes our beginning by reminding us that Richler was right: an artist is simply an attentive witness to her own time, his own place, and their own things.

Lost Spectables

Red Guitar

      When asked what Coca-Cola meant to him, Warhol answered: "pop". This "deeply superficial" remark (as funny as it is factual) unites both the form and the content of his art in one word. It serves as a concise example of how and why Warhol directed attention to the surface of things. To know all about Warhol requires a focused intimacy with the surface of his paintings, his sculptures, and his films. Beyond this surface there is nothing to know because there is no thing to know. The shape of things like pictures (moving or otherwise) show their surface depth.
     Cohen's door, guitar, dustpan, and wainscot flooring, brought together on a flat surface, are as transcendentally decorative as his less-than-still life. As one woman said of him, he is "complicated in a very grown-up way, [a way that] makes even Dylan seem childish." Cohen congratulated this woman for a book she had recently published while they enjoyed dinner together one evening. She was flattered, of course, until Cohen remarked: "Your book is more interesting than you are." Cohen is a deeply superficial tease. His brand of grown-up complexity manifests itself clearly in his fond fetish for the female form (a recurring theme in this exhibit).

Her Hand In Sand #2

     The print "Her Hand In Sand #2" succeeds in showing how the simple shape of seemingly handless arms can serve as a complex metaphor about whether this woman's left hand knows what her right hand is doing. And yet it simultaneously fails to combine colours in a way that might serve the metaphor better by reminding us of, say, "Nu aux jambas croisees" by Matisse.
     Despite Cohen's credulous colouring, he is nonetheless able to unite luscious form and linguistic content by literally drawing us to his words (shapes in their own right). Nowhere is this more evident than in Cohen's print "Dear Roshi". It is at once a birthday greeting, an ironic apology, a homage to feminine seduction, and a poetic descendant of the enlightened eroticism of "Red Thread" Zen:

sin like a madman
until you can't do anything else
no room for any more
(Ikkyu Sojun, 1394 - 1481)

     By 1994 Cohen seemingly had no more room for wine, women, and song. Drinking at least three bottles of wine before he went on stage during his concert tour that year took its toll. He heard the bell and knew it was for him. When the wine stopped flowing, and the women stopped coming, and the song stopped singing, he entered the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles to live the life of a monk and study with his long time teacher and friend Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. His seclusion lasted for five years.

Shambhala Sun


     In 1996 Cohen was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk and served as personal assistant to Sasaki Roshi (secretary, driver, and occasional drinking buddy). Like all good Zen men before him Cohen is absolutely devoted to his teacher. In speaking of his rigorous training while at Mt. Baldy (he once referred to Zen monks as "the Marines of the spiritual world"), he told a reporter at the time that you can only engage in training like this out of love. Picking up on the indirect reference to his teacher the reporter asked: "So, if it weren't for the Roshi you wouldn't be here?" Without missing a poetic beat Cohen said: "If it weren't for the Roshi, I wouldn't be." He then went on to say that one of the reasons he became a monk was because "Roshi wanted me to do so for tax purposes." Death and taxes. Love indeed.
     Is it any wonder that the centerpiece of this exhibit is Cohen's love letter to his Roshi? Written in letters that are as shapely as its subject matter, Cohen mischievously informs his teacher that his love for the female form has indeed got the very best of this very useless monk (plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose):

Dear Roshi


     He obviously had some room left for the women. Zen has its merits, and also its limits. It all depends upon the practitioner. Monks are the shit eaters of the world ("shit happens"), and by 1999 Cohen evidently lost his appetite. In a poem called "The Collapse Of Zen", this husky poet of the mourning after asks a series of rhetorical questions about sex and enlightenment that is clearly reminiscent of Sojun's brand of collapsible verse. Cohen's koan poses the following question in the opening stanza:

When I can wedge my face
into the place
and struggle with my breathing
as she brings her eager fingers down
     to separate herself,
to help me use my whole mouth
against her hungriness,
     her most private of hungers -
why should I want to be enlightened?

Then again, why not? If enlightenment is a woman named Rebecca De Mornay ...
     What does it mean to brashly court public success by pretending to privately ignore it? Ironically enough to succeed for Cohen is to fail. In the end nothing works. The wanderlust that has characterized his life taught him as much. In commenting on his many travels, and his inability to stick to something for the long haul, Cohen said: "I didn't see it or think about it at the time, but I'd get tired of something and then move on to something else, never terribly happy doing it, leaving one thing for the next because the thing I had didn't work, whether it was the woman or the poem or the city of whatever it was - it wasn't working, nothing worked. Until I understood that nothing works. But you know, that took me a lifetime to understand that nothing works and to accept that." Nothing works. It is and remains hopeless. This hopeless roamantic knows that gaining inner peace and harmony is not a victimless crime. It kills you. It makes you useless.

Still Looking

     There was a haunting sense of loss in this exhibit: lost pussy, lost spectacles, lost selflessness, even lost life (the name of this exhibit is the title of a song Cohen wrote in response to the Jewish Holocaust). To experience Cohen's work is to experience the loss that life brings, even lost royalties. And yet the experience of the exhibit, like the experience of his life up to this point, is a clear instance of the truth that art is indeed (and in word) what you can get away with. To be danced to the end of love by a dancer who has got away with much in his life, to be shown through his art that life is loss because it is suffering, does not bring a sense of hope, but rather hopeless resignation. Even hopeless resignation is hopeless. In the midst of the useless loss of this useless monk, there is an empty affirmation of inner peace and harmony here (even if there are no girls anymore). Within the beautiful harness of "Dance me to the end of love", it is difficult not to experience the meaning of his Zen Dharma name 'Jikan': it is difficult not to bow one's own head and be reduced to "ordinary silence."

Drabinsky Gallery: 1990 - 2011
Leonard Cohen: 1934 - 2016