Nancy Cohen: Hackensack Dreaming at Agnes Varis Art Center

Walking into a Nancy Cohen installation is to be immersed in a riotous array of sensations. Texture, color, and light are her elements, her inspiration, the innumerable forms of nature altered by time, but in their imperfections, possessing the spirit and expression of their history.

“Hackensack Dreaming”, 2014-2016, glass, handmade paper, wire, rubber

This exhibition was inspired by the unlikely landscape of the Mill Creek Marsh, a polluted wetlands section of the Hackensack River squeezed between the New Jersey Highway and Secaucus’s outlet malls, Cohen and a friend had seen from the highway. “The malls, and the skyline of New York form the background for experiencing this isolated puddle of the organic in a deluge of the human-made” she remembers.

Yet Cohen found this Meadowlands marsh a deeply primal experience, igniting a fervor of compelling and exciting interpretations of what that damaged landscape, the remnants of a former cedar forest, had experienced over centuries.

detail “Hackensack Dreaming”, 2014-2016, glass, handmade paper, wire, rubber

“A few steps from the shopping center parking lot we entered a quiet space where pools of flat still water gave way to the tops of wooden tree stumps that seemed to break free from thin sheets of ice while simultaneously appearing to encapsulate them as they ruptured the surface of the pale blue water. The stumps forms are inexplicable, magical, sculptural. They seem to embody fragility, perseverance and a caught moment. Conceptual ideas I have been moving around in my work for years were suddenly presented to me besides the New Jersey Turnpike”

“Hackensack Dreaming”, 2014-2016, glass, handmade paper, wire, rubber
“Hackensack Dreaming”, 2014-2016, glass, handmade paper, wire, rubber

Hackensack Dreaming is a site specific, room-sized, glass, rubber, metal, and handmade paper installation, with passages to walk through, and floor and wall coverings encrusted with thought provoking delights.

A master of the laborious art of handmade paper, she integrates the soft, pliable material with metal, glass and rubber. With thin delicate, see-through skins, and thick sculptural forms, she explores the contrasts of these materials in ways that allow her to duplicate nature’s constructions, covering, stretching, pulling, and coaxing, often seeming to be defying the limits of rag and fiber. Then there are the voluptuously textured and painted, dyed, and embedded paper sheets lining the walls and floors in gorgeous rich, overlapping colors of bodies of water, riverbeds, and wet sand.

detail “Hackensack Dreaming”, 2014-2016, glass, handmade paper, wire, rubber
detail “Hackensack Dreaming”, 2014-2016, glass, handmade paper, wire, rubber

This is a dream of thousands of years ago, before mammals walked the earth, when these waters teemed with trilobites, brachiopods, jellyfish, early crustaceans and sea sponges, the earliest forms of sea life.

The structures of these basic forms are turned into a veritable rhapsody of variations. Some are opaque with metal and stretched thick paper, some translucent glass, others resting on the Center’s floor, which is prepared with swirls of cerulean, blue and cream, illustrating the way the light would penetrate through water and reflect on the bottom of the riverbed.  Some forms are delicately leveraged against curved sheets of saturated cobalt, light ultramarine, or gray heavily surfaced, painted, and sculpted paper. Some float lightly from invisible ceiling wires, giving the illusion of floating on water. In this way Cohen fills not only the floor and walls but the very air itself.

“Marsh Drawing”, 2016, 15 x 9 feet, handmade paper, rubber, resin
“Marsh Drawing”, 2016, 15 x 9 feet, handmade paper, rubber, resin
detail “Marsh Drawing”, 2016, 15 x 9 feet, handmade paper, rubber, resin
detail “Marsh Drawing”, 2016, 15 x 9 feet, handmade paper, rubber, resin

The paper surfaces are varied; smooth and rippled, painted and raised, adding to the sense of changes in the space. Among the most complex pieces are two large wall hangings, the “Hackensack Marsh” and Hackensack Dreaming Drawings.” Made from patchworks of light paper, one of intense warm colors, the other pale and icily ethereal, they reflect a similar landscape with mollusks and shellfish at different times in different climates.

“Hackensack Dreaming Drawing”, 2015, handmade paper, rubber and resin, 112" x 90”
“Hackensack Dreaming Drawing”, 2015, handmade paper, rubber and resin, 112″ x 90”

Cohen’s skill and virtuosity are in full command as she finds the poetry in the ruins and memories of a forgotten, once vital, living body of water. The passage of time, the impersonal destruction by human encroachment never entirely supersedes the recognition of sublime beauty and the pulse of life in the most unexpected places.


NANCY COHEN: Hackensack Dreaming


Curated by Midori Yoshimoto

September 7th – November 13th


Agnes Varis Art Center

647 Fulton Street

Brooklyn, NY 11217         

A. Bascove

A. Bascove

A. Bascove is a NYC based painter, printmaker, and collagist whose work has been exhibited for over thirty years in galleries and museums, mainly in New York and Paris. Her work is in various collections in the States and abroad.

  1. I read the comments made about Nancy
    s work and could find little to add to embellish on the beauty and the tranquility in Nancy’s work. She uses her color palette to show the depths of the ocean the life found on the sands and on the seabed and her draping and paper sculpting makes the images and forms come alive. You can clearly sea the crustaceans, the other sea life as they swim about on the blues and grays of the seabed. Nancy, I do not have the words to do your work justice but I know beauty and artistic ability when I see it and I must say your work is divine.

  2. I enjoyed reading this informative review with vivid description and detail that match up with my experience viewing the installation. The review captures the inspiring observations the artist collected and the complexity of Cohen’s response in material form.

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