Exhibition review: Cobi Cockburn

Finding new rigour in a signature practice, glass artist Cobi Cockburn pulls off a stellar exhibition that is demanding of both herself, and the viewer.

Working with glass as an artist is not an easy choice. Add the challenges an extreme minimal aesthetic, an almost complete absence of colour, and a glass collector base in Australia that is extremely small, and it’s a kind of triple belly punch to a developing career.

One artist working against those odds, however, is Cobi Cockburn.

Cockburn’s new exhibition Silhouette, at Sabbia Gallery in Sydney (one of the few commercial galleries celebrating glass artists in Australia), is a knock out. It was timed to coincide with Sydney Contemporary – where she also presented work and an artist talk, pulling the medium into the mainstream market.

What is interesting about this new body of work – especially for anyone who has tracked her career since the 90s – is it feels new. She has made a bold and exciting leap to the use of neon and a subtle introduction of muted tones.

Walking into Sabbia’s basement gallery, from the outset the exhibition feels ambitious, despite its calm veneer. The walls are populated with a rigour – square fields of glass that hover slightly off the wall; their compositions of cut and fused glass strips meticulously laid alongside each other in abstract conversations.

Think Agnes Martin, Max Cole, Park Seo-Bo, Roman Opałka – it’s a camp of meditative mark making that invites viewers to contemplate the creative process.

On the one hand it is obsessive in its controlled gestures; while on the other it offers a calm that liberates the body into a state that is perhaps more in sync with the natural order. I see this in particular in these works where there is a ‘tick’ – a blip or a nick – that adds a shimmer or life to these works, where a glass cane slips slightly out of order or line.

It is like the occasional flicker in a neon or fluro tube that breaks the technical drone. This is where this new body of Cockburn’s work gets exciting. She has paired these signature wall works with a suite of light boxes that encase a neon line behind an opaque sheet of glass.

They again pay heed to the lineage of geometric abstraction – to Barnett Newman’s zip paintings – where the definition of the neon zip (in her case) is softened and diffused by its glass shield. It is all about the engagement of the field and the gesture.

They sit beautifully in conversation, facing off against another in a suite of works that are presented on waist-high pedestals and march down an end wall of the gallery. The titles of these works offer a subtle give away: Silhouette Light Grey … Grey Blue… Light Blue … Dark Grey.

Interior View of Silhouette by Cobi Cockburn at Sabbia Gallery September 2022. Photo Sabbia Gallery.

Anyone who has encountered an immersive light work by James Turrell knows that you need to allow your retina to adjust to embrace the full spectrum of his work. In a similar way, these new silhouettes reveal themselves slowly. And in that, Cockburn schools us in the gentle art of looking and colour perception.

As one refocuses in slow time – casting their eye across the quiet space – what unites these work is their implicit trust in viewers’ capacity to consider the object in front of them, be it the shimmer of an abstraction or the diffused pulse of light.

It is a confident gesture for an artist. It is also an unwavering belief in their practice; but in that, a kind of empathy also recognises – and allows – the viewer to find an awareness of their own self, inhabiting both body and time when engaging with these work.

Contrary to our believe that ‘minimal’ art is a hard sell in Australia, this show has done well, and is also testament by the string of accolades that follow Cockburn. Her entire 2011 exhibition esse at Sabbia Gallery was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA).

Curator of AGWA, Robert Cook said of these new works: ‘Cobi’s glass wall panels sit off the wall, making them perform as minimal interventions and as windows into other spaces.’

He continued describing her ‘mathematical layered glass compositions’ as ‘distilled precursors of ideas and inventions’ that are simply ‘voiding you in the process of meditation’.

It is interesting given this work has held its place within the noise and rush of an art fair and an art market that is often caught up in bravado here in Australia. It is a great advertisement for a persistent vision.

Silhouette by Cobi Cockburn
Sabbia Gallery
609 Elizabeth Street,Redfern Sydney
2-24 September.

2022 is the UN International Year of Glass.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina