Charles Cohan and Abigail Romanchak with Converge II
Master printmaker Charles Cohan is in the Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery doing a final walkthrough of his exhibition Ground: New Work by Charles Cohan, on view through March 25. It is just hours before the opening and he stands in front of a 40-by-70-inch slab of carved wood, its surface a black web of branches radiating out from two narrow trunks in the center, cutting through the warm gray and brown chiseled patterns that define the fractal shapes. “You can touch it,” he says with a smile. Then knocks loudly on the wood. Cohan is the 14th recipient of the Catharine E.B. Cox Award for Excellence in Visual Arts—an accolade that is given every two years to a former or current Hawai‘i resident, and includes a one-person exhibition at the museum.
The exhibition is spread across two subchambers of the gallery and comprises 11 carved woodblocks and 11 prints from Cohan’s Samish series, as well as the massive installation Converge II that is a collaboration with Maui-based printmaker Abigail Romanchak.
Samish and Converge II are different projects, but both reflect a perception of what Cohan describes as “land movement, the fact that land is alive.” Each image captures a unique observation of these fluctuations, fixed forever in the artists’ memories.
It is somewhat unusual for a solo exhibition to feature the work of two artists, but Cohan sees the experience of collaboration as part and parcel of the work itself—indistinct from the physical product. When asked about sharing the spotlight in his own award show, he grins broadly and without missing a beat says, “It feels really good.”
The Washington native moved to Honolulu in 1994 to teach printmaking at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where he continues to challenge and inspire new generations of students—like Romanchak. “For seven years I was Abbey’s ‘teacher’ and she was a ‘student,’” Cohan explains. Romanchak completed her BFA and MFA under Cohan’s tutelage, and over the years the two artists have become close friends and regular collaborators—most recently at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s ‘Ae Kai exhibition at Ala Moana Center in July. “There are times when I’ve been in the position of really being able to learn from Abbey as a student and then she’s the teacher,” Cohan beams. “That’s really what I feel best about within this whole project.”
Cohan described his collaboration with Romanchak as the product of synchronicity in an article in Flux Magazine. According to Cohan, the project began precisely “at noon on May 3, 2017, when Abigail Romanchak sent me a set of images that were eerily simultaneous to a body of work that I was developing.”
The 9-by-20-foot installation consists of 88 woodblock and collagraph prints featuring ghostly horizontal lines interspersed with jagged, frenetic waves, fading downward into dark grids. The two graphic styles are both representations of, well…ground. Romanchak’s prints are based on seismograph readings from Kīlauea volcano on Hawai‘i Island and Cohan’s are internal imaginings of the layers of sediment beneath his feet. Together, they form an intricate tapestry of technical and textural impressions of a subterranean landscape, at once both real and imagined.
On the opposite wall, the mood of Samish is unmistakably melancholy—intentionally so. “The tree prints are a memorial,” he explains. “A lot of this is about remembrance and it’s about a sense of physical loss—the loss of a mountain that I grew up on, the loss of a grove of trees that have been very important to my experience of this particular piece of land.”
These large-scale prints and the woodblocks they were made from depict a grove of non-native black cherry trees that once grew on his family’s Samish Island property in Washington State. Several years ago the trees contracted a disease and as Cohan observed the effects of illness on their shape and form, he began photographing them. “I always found them to be really exquisite,” Cohan reflects, “especially with the dawn or the dusk light affecting them. We have a lot of gray days in the Pacific Northwest so you see stark black with a little bit of brown contrasted against the bright white.”
Cohan created each wood panel by tracing his photographs using an overhead projector and then carving them by hand with a chisel hand gouge. “In some of the images there’s more of a feeling that they’re alive—there’s evidence of growth,” he explains. “Others are really spare, there’s not a lot of lifeblood flowing in that one whereas this one feels like it’s living and breathing.” Cohan says the cherry trees “simultaneously expired” about a year ago and have since been cut down.
At the opening reception for Ground, Cohan is showered with lei and greeted by a gaggle of current MFA students. Past Catharine E.B. Cox award winners Maya Portner (2015), John Koga (2012), Kaili Chun (2006), and Laura Smith (1994) stand by to congratulate him, along with other friends and colleagues. Cohan chats with Richard Cox who, with brothers Charles and Doak, established the award in 1985 to honor their grandmother Catharine E.B. Cox, who also happened to be the museum’s second director.
After a few words from museum director Sean O’Harrow and Arts of Hawai‘i curator Healoha Johnston, as well as a short speech of his own, Cohan offers Romanchak the microphone. Ceremonious in an emerald green mu‘umu‘u and lush haku lei, Romanchak exclaims, “Solo usually means one person!” She tearfully thanks her colleague and former teacher, going on to say, “I think [art historian and UH professor] Jaimey Hamilton Faris said it best, ‘When Charlie shows his work, he puts his time on display.’”