Jeane Cohen "In the Walls of My House There Were Spirits" at Zolla Lieberman Gallery


Installation View 1, Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Jean Cohen In the Walls of My House There Were Spirits. All photos taken by Amanda Joy Calobrisi.

“First of all, paint a cage

with an opened little door

then paint something attractive something simple

something beautiful

something of benefit for the bird

Put the picture on a tree

in a garden

in a wood

or in a forest

hide yourself behind the tree



Jeane Cohen’s paintings currently on display at Zolla Lieberman Gallery are like poems in the way that we know we must enter another time frame after we approach them. The time frame of the storyteller, a time frame that requests we clear the current cruelties of the world from our minds (albeit temporarily), tabula rasa, starting after our next eye blink. Wide eyed and expectant, we are children again in our beds, sheets pulled up to chins, awaiting the reader to speak.  The diseuse clears her throat. Words float and swirl, intertwined with memory and invention, we conjure pictures in our minds, some clearly formed, colored and detailed while others are more felt than imaged. For example, Cohen’s remarkable painting titled Tears, 2021, oil on canvas, 65 x 84 in., we must wait for the picture to reveal itself  wordlessly. Like a strange kind of telepathy, imagery floats to the surface of your awareness, and we realize we have been reading this language since we were very small. The storyteller/painter’s task is to transform and communicate an event(s), imagined or real, into words/images familiar enough to inspire a feeling of closeness, relatability. It is empathy I first feel while looking at this nightscape dreamscape. I feel before I see the other namable things after eyeing and naming the night and the moon. Like a wordless page in a children’s book, I scan for reason and commune with colors, but feel content to be adrift in this watery world without explanation. Even the most grounded people know that dearly departed dogs and cats rise again in our dreams as do skyscrapers shimmy like mirages appearing and disappearing on horizons unexpectedly.


Tears, 2021, oil on canvas, 65 x 84 in. & Detail.

“Sometimes the bird arrives quickly

but sometimes it takes years

Don't be discouraged


wait for years if necessary

the rapidity or the slowness of the arrival

doesn't have any relationship

with the result of the picture”

It is impossible to ignore the paint in Cohen’s paintings, its materiality and presence is first and foremost. The versatility of oil paint is wielded by the painter’s brushes. “The brush is for saving things from chaos” wrote seventeenth century Chinese landscape painter Shitao. The chaos of brush meeting paint meeting canvas. This is of course the primary motivation of the painter. Chaos then, I think, is both founded and saved by the brush. It is the catastrophe and the rescuer. In Mountain, 2021, oil on canvas, 35 x 44 in., we can clearly see how malleable paint is, areas of mass tone are dragged to reveal undertone and piled back up again. Paint is plaited like a braid, thinned to drips, whisked and wiped out like mud by a wind-shield wiper. Heavy things like mountains are made wisps. These are worlds where a tanuki (raccoon dogs) are as large as men and heavier than Mount Fuji. Worlds where the air is wrangled, harnessed and stilled in mid-action.


The Spirits Around Me, 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 84 in. & Detail.

“When the bird comes

if it comes

keep the deepest silence

wait until the bird enters the cage

and when entered in

Close the door softly with the brush

then remove one by one all the bars

care not to touch any feather of the bird

Then draw the portrait of the tree

choosing the most beautiful branch

for the bird

paint also the green foliage and the coolness

of the beasts of the grass in the summer’s heat

and then, wait that the bird starts singing”

The Spirits Around Me, 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 84 in, is another stand out piece with a somber palette of purples, yellows, blues and pinks. It is both otherworldly and of this earth. The canvas is divided by a fence that seems more psychological than solid. It divides the picture plane into what is in front and what is behind. This echoing the shifting of vision that happens while looking at each painting in this body of work, an optical reorientation as you sort through the layers of the intertwined forms. In front and behind of the fence there are prostrate women in the vain of the “angel of grief” or the “eternally weeping woman” of Pere Lachaise cemetery. Are we in a graveyard?  Then we notice life because it notices us. As if just approaching the fence now frozen in place ears perked, we see a deer. The fence only obscures its front legs, leaving its rump revealed so we can ogle how tenderly it is painted  with luscious, mottled swatches of color. The animals in Cohen’s paintings often ground the pictures. Thickly painted, they stand, sit or hover with earthy familiarity even if everything around them is in a painterly flux. Even the windblown sunflower in Acclimating to a Hostile Environment (Owl Hunts Sunflower), 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 in. holds its ground, refusing to bend to the painted bluster. The whooshing of the wind is almost audible in this one.


Detail: Acclimating to a Hostile Environment (Owl Hunts Sunflower), 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 in.

“If the bird doesn't sing

it’s a bad sign

it means the picture is wrong

but if it sings it’s a good sign

it means that you can sign

so you tear with sweetness

a feather from the bird

and write your name in a corner of the painting.”

Pour Faire le Portrait d'un Oiseau, Jacques Prévert (1946), Trans. Eugene Levich

Cohen’s paintings sing. They recite and express painted tales of which the imagination and perhaps the recollections behind them are hinted at in titles like The Unicorn Defends Herself (from the Unicorn Tapestries); Lifeblood; Draining House; Apparition and Fates. The paintings swoop and sweep. The painter’s gestural and searching process alludes to a passing of time and maybe to the fallibility and fugitive qualities of memory. Of course, not all imaginings or memories can be celebrations, one painting presented in In the Walls of My House There Were Spirits is particularly darker in mood than the others. House, 2021, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in., is a primarily black painting. There are three illuminated portals that look out onto a world on fire within it. If we, the viewer, are inside the darkened house then we are in irrefutable danger, both the wall of the house and the luminous forest seem on the verge of consuming us. Our only hope in this position is that all of this is simply a bad dream.  In the Walls of My House There Were Spirits is on view until May 1, 2020at Zolla Lieberman Gallery in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.


Fates, 2020, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in.


"In the Walls of My House There Were Spirits" Info

DateMarch 26 - May 1, 2021
Address325 Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60654
HoursTuesday thru Friday - 10am - 5pm, Saturday - 11am - 5pm, Sunday, Monday – Closed