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Reviewing Leonard Cohen’s Other Art

Posted by art On June - 18 - 2007

Leonard Cohen
Drawn to Words

June 3rd – 30th, 2007
Drabinsky Gallery

By Margarita Osipian

Another hot afternoon in Toronto. I ventured out on my bike to see the exhibit of Leonard Cohen’s art showing at the Drabinsky Gallery. Aptly titled Drawn to Words, this exhibit is the first time that Cohen’s visual art has been publicly displayed. The small, two-floor gallery was a good choice for the forty pieces of Cohen’s work that are finally being showcased as part of Luminato. All the prints were on heavy sheets of fine paper and embossed with two symbols; one reading “the order of the unified heart” and the second one being an image of “the little bird” found on the cover of Book of Longing, Cohen’s most recent publication. The prints echo Japanese printmaking techniques, with their red block stamps of two intertwined hearts and Cohen’s Buddhist monk name. All the images were stamped, signed, and numbered by Cohen. Although it can easily be said that Cohen is a Canadian icon, many people only know of his music and writing. Being able to view his art adds another layer onto this multi-faceted individual.

Drawings of women are scattered among the work, their essence captured by Cohen’s use of very simple lines. His love for the curve of a woman’s back is evident in many of his pieces and, although quite simple, adds an air of beauty to the drawings. Most of the work in the gallery looks like it was done with ink and pastels, but upon further inquiry I was surprised to learn that, since 1985, most of Cohen’s work has been done on a computer using a tablet and drawing programs. Some of the images, like “My first wife”, are scanned enlargements of drawings that he did on napkins or scraps of paper. Linda Book, the director of the Drabinsky Gallery, was kind enough to speak to me about the exhibition, and mentioned that Cohen “draws as a respite from words.” It is within these moments between his words that the drawings emerge, yet they evoke the same simplicity, universality, and humanity as his poems and songs. To describe Cohen, Book mentioned that at the exhibition’s opening there were many famous and wealthy individuals who came to the gallery in stretch limos, but Cohen was nowhere to be seen – and suddenly he came walking down the street. It is this sort of humble behaviour and simplicity of life that makes Cohen’s work stand out.

Many of the more colourful works seemed too painterly and overworked and were not as effective as the aesthetically appealing line drawings, which encompassed more in their minimalism. The highlight of the show was a series of self portraits that Cohen did over the course of 2003, when he chose to do a portrait a day. These tiny works were bursting from their small frames with character and wisdom. Incorporated into many of them were short sentences or musings about the world, words that came to Cohen while he was staring into a mirror, attempting to draw himself. Referring to his famous and oft-depicted tweed cap, two of my favourite quotations next to the self portraits were “it was the hat after all,” and “just one little guy, with an old tweed cap, against the whole stinkin’ universe.”

Drawn to Words unveils that Cohen manipulates simple lines with the same proficiency that he manipulates words. Lined-paper drawings like “dear roshi” and “the little bird” work as if the images are taking the place of text, filling the spaces between. Derrida said that words are just black ticks on a page; Cohen does a lovely job of creating beauty and stories from those black ticks.

Drawn to Words runs until June 30th at the Drabinsky Gallery at 22 Scollard Street, in Yorkville.

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