“I just get bored with anything typically pretty, and I enjoy the melancholic, both in art and cinema,” explained Nadia Lee Cohen of her cult cinema-informed style in a 2016 We Heart interview. Opening this week at Málaga’s La Térmica, her latest exhibition is an exhaustive run through of her career to date, comprising more than 50 photographs and four films. It is not, though, a retrospective.
Not a Retrospective is of course by all intents and purposes a retrospective—the first major exhibition of the Los Angeles-based British artist’s work to date—but Cohen has a contrariness defined in her unmistakable aesthetic. “At first glance,” she says, “I can see how my work may be—is—reminiscent of a time characterised by male objectification of women. But to me the ‘looks’ of those eras are aesthetically pleasing, so why shouldn’t I be able to reference them and use them in my sets and styling and models?”
Those ‘looks’ are the sort of hyper-saturated plastic ’80s visions you might associate with David Lynch or John Waters—perfectionism belied by a foreboding darkness, the suppressed underbelly of suburbia bubbling over with malice masked by wide smiles, glamour contorted. Cohen’s world plays out menacingly, weirdly, but daubed with a sheen of gloss that forces its viewers to think again.
Employing this contorted suburbia as a device by which to play out narrative of beauty preconceptions and female empowerment, Cohen’s education at the London College of Fashion remains a conscious influence—her sets and costumes drenched in style and haute couture sensibilities—but it’s cinema whose inspiration is felt most; each image a conflicted character from an unwritten cult classic. “When choosing my models, the most important feature for me is that they have characterful, expressive faces to embody the part I have previously imagined or explained. The resulting image hopefully evokes a sense of uncertainty in the viewer and encourages them to linger a little longer.”
Nadia Lee Cohen, Not a Retrospective, opens at La Térmica Málaga 22 February and runs until 12 May.