Art in Print Review by Nigel Frank

Art in Print Review by Nigel Frank

Prix de Print No. 7A Television ‘Tronie’ by Brian Cohen

Juried by Nigel Frank

Recently, while conducting research for an exhibition on the portrait in print, I came across the art historical concept of the tronie.1 A subgenre of portraiture that developed during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, tronies described “lifelike images of single, anonymous figures.” Rembrandt was a great exponent, and his etchings of these unidentified sitters include portraits of elderly faces, their expressions and physiognomies explored in loving detail. Surprisingly, the enigmatic Vermeer was also described as a tronie artist when three of his paintings were auctioned as part of the Jacob Dissius collection in 1696. I was compelled to wonder, where are today’s tronie artists? Is the genre of any interest to print- makers in the age of ready photographic imaging? Looking through the submissions to the Prix de Print, I was delighted to discover what appeared to be an example of a tronie—and of a quality that could stand comparison with its antecedents.

I was first struck by the power of the portrait: its superb and skillful control of light, its chiaroscuro silhouette. The head’s emphatic baldness and closed, blank eyes reminded me of a sculptural bust of a Roman senator, compact and powerful, or of portraits of Benito Mussolini. The face hidden in shadow, save for the strong profile of the nose, a pronounced chin and the suggestion of thin, pursed lips, gives the portrait a brooding malevolence and pugnaciousness that signals defiance and aggression. Here is a tronie that in the UK might represent the stock character of the lumpenproletariat, as depicted in Martin Amis’ novel Lionel Asbo.

In the entry’s documentation, the subject is identified as Man with Eyes Closed (Walter White). Of course, there cannot be a portrait of Walter White, the fictional chemistry teacher turned crystal- meth dealer in the American TV series Breaking Bad, only a portrait of the actor Bryan Cranston playing Walter White. The humanist model of portraiture, the authentic translation of an individual’s physical or psychological likeness, is perturbed. As the celebrity portraitist Elizabeth Peyton has said: “When cab drivers ask me what I do, I say, ‘I paint people.’ But then I always want to qualify it a bit.” If, as an artist, your subject is the “faction” of celebrity and fame—the distance between reality and the made-up—then the authenticity of a portrait involves a post- modern trope, so why not reinstate the tronie? Here, as depicted by the artist Brian Cohen, is “the image of a bald middle-aged

man, lost, isolated and ignored”—a type whose portrayal can be realized effectively through etching. As one of the few people on the planet never to have seen Breaking Bad, I cannot vouch for the portrait’s accuracy, only its truthfulness.

One of the disadvantages of relying on digital images for the judging process is that important qualities of scale and surface are lost. The inability to examine the surface of the print seems a particular loss in this case. The etching appears to have a succulent and velvety texture, both luscious and grainy. As a nonpractitioner, I can only imagine the pitted etching plate, deeply bitten with aquatint, being inked with the utmost care and sensitivity. This level of skill belies the artist’s statement on his website (consulted after the fact):

I stumble upon less technical and more makeshift approaches to etch- ing. I start out broadly, a little uncon- trolled, but with a clear geometric underpinning. I don’t really want to know how the image will look before- hand—too many unexpectedly and potentially satisfying things may hap- pen to exclude the accidental or the momentarily inspired ahead of time.

Viewing the print on a computer, one feels it must be life-sized at least, the scale of the death mask it resembles. Yet five-by-five inches is all it measures— more an Elizabethan miniature than an 18th-century mezzotint “swagger” portrait. At this scale the viewer’s relation- ship with the image becomes altogether more intimate, a talisman meant to be carried around continually as a reminder of human frailty. The face fills the frame, pushes at the boundaries of the plate that barely contain its energy. On his Huffington Post blog, Cohen quotes favorably, I think, Walter White’s last words: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive.” Cohen’s print gives form to this powerful epitaph, this humane realization. Man with Eyes Closed (Walter White) is not only a tour de force of printmaking but a haunting portrait that captures a timeless human personality type—to which I can only imagine Rembrandt would also have responded.

Nigel Frank is a London-based curator and art consultant.


1. “Face to Face: British Portrait Prints from the Clifford Chance Art Collection,” Sir John Soane Museum, London 10 Oct 2014 – 24 Jan 2015.


etching, 5" X 5"


Brian Cohen, Man with Eyes Closed (Walter White) (2014).  Edition of 22. Printed and published by Bridge Press, Westminster Station, Vermont.

This iteration of the Art in Print Prix de Print has been judged by curator, consultant and print specialist Nigel Frank. The Prix de Print is a bimonthly competition, open to all subscribers, in which a single work is selected by an outside juror to be the subject of a brief essay. For further information on entering the Prix de Print, please go to our website: index.php/about#competitions.

Art in Print September – October 2014

Emblems at CX Silver Gallery in Brattleboro


a lumine motus Moved by light etching, 2015, 5" X 5"


Brian D. Cohen – Emblems

September 22 – October 23, 2016

You are cordially invited to the opening reception with the artist
Sunday September 25, 1-3pm
C.X. Silver Gallery, 814 Western Avenue, Brattleboro.

The exhibition is open daily by appointment · Inquiries (802) 257-7898 · cohen-emblems

Brian D. Cohen has created a series of etchings based on Renaissance emblems, presenting familiar elements and objects in association with Latin aphorisms and English translation. The Renaissance emblem book employed familiar elements and scenarios in association with a common saying, intended to invoke associations and meanings with a particular lesson in mind. The physical is presented in order to reveal the spiritual, the metaphysical, the abstract, and the symbolic. The reader/viewer of this book is invited to construct significance from the often unpredictable and contradictory friction of text and image; in that gap is a tension that challenges and engages the viewer, much as it confounds and provokes him or her. This work is about the process by which we see, acquire, and possess things, and what they mean to us, in their variety and complexity, beauty and presence.

For Cohen, “the most important things to us stand quietly apart from the world, take us away from it, then recall us to the world, mirror it, model it, intensify it, and reflect it. The unique object is indispensable, irreplaceable, and irreplicable. What do we see in it? Certain things become projections of images, ideas, and analogies. We don’t see the ‘thing;’ we see what it makes us see. Art historian James Elkins says: ‘No two people will see the same object; we change along with the object, we see a new experience…A picture is the ways and places it is viewed, and I am the result of those various encounters.” Cohen savors what Elkins has described as “the perception of the “betweenness” of objects rather than their ‘thingness.’ “ Cohen sees this betweenness as a numinous layer.

“Things do not carry within them intrinsic meaning. We can watch ourselves attach this meaning, in slow motion. Naming objects shortcuts our visual experience, and I want to prevent this from happening. You recognize the object, but you are forced to look more closely as your interpretation of the object is confounded, challenged, elaborated by the text. … I make images that give you a chance to reflect on what the world is about. I want to create images that viewers will take time to contemplate, that satisfy a desire for detail, presence, and fullness, with strong iconic shapes and resolved compositions.

I work on as many as 30 or more etchings at once. The process of etching is physical and elemental, requiring force and pressure, inviting aggression and then delicacy, conjoining fire, water, earth, and air. There is something about setting an image into metal that implies permanence, duration, and enduring presence, and I hope my images mirror the medium in that sense.

I embrace themes of loss, futility, destruction, and unexpected, redemptive beauty, themes tied to the tradition of printmaking, whose imagery has always tended toward critical commentary and serious contemplation, and often toward humor and irony as well.

Brian D. Cohen is an educator, artist, and writer. He was graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude with high honors from Haverford College and completed his Master’s degree in Painting at the University of Washington. In 1989 he founded Bridge Press to further the association and integration of visual image, original text, and book structure.

As a printmaker, Brian has shown in forty individual exhibitions, including a retrospective in 1997 at the Fresno Art Museum, and has participated in over 150 group shows. Cohen’s books and etchings are held by major private and public collections throughout the country, including Yale, Harvard, Brown, and Stanford Universities, Middlebury, Smith, Wellesley, Swarthmore, and Dartmouth Colleges, the University of Vermont, The New York Public Library, The Library of Congress, and the Philadelphia and Portland (Oregon) Museums of Art, as well as the United States Ambassador’s residence in Egypt. Brian was the first-place winner of major international print competitions in San Diego, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC., was awarded the Best Book in Show at the Pyramid Atlantic Book Fair, and has received grants from the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Community Foundation.