Phoenix photographer Liz Cohen joined a prestigious list of artists and scholars last week after being named a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow. Created by the Guggenheim Foundation in 1925, the fellowship is designed to help diverse, exceptional people pursue, research, and create art.
“I’m so grateful for being recognized this way,” says Cohen.
Previous recipients have included renowned creatives from photographer Ansel Adams to composer Aaron Copland. This year’s list of 175 fellows also includes Tucson artist Alice Leora Briggs. Recipients get cash awards to help move their creative projects forward.
In Cohen’s case, the award will further her work for an upcoming exhibition titled “BODY/MAGIC,” which is currently scheduled to open at ASU Art Museum in late August. It’s being curated by Julio Cesar Morales, a Tempe artist and curator for the museum.
The exhibit will expand on Cohen’s best-known body of work, which included transforming an East German Trabant into an American El Camino lowrider titled Trabantimino, while also transforming her own body and creating performative work — including posing as a bikini model and customizing lowrider vehicles. The exhibit is tied to a nationwide Feminist Art Coalition project exploring the intersection of art, feminisms, and civic discourse.
“When Julio invited me to do the show, it gave me the opportunity to dive back into that body of work, which includes photographs, performances, and the car itself,” she says. “I’ve been going through tons of ephemera created over the long haul with that body of work, which never really ends.”
She’s been working on the exhibit inside her Sunnyslope studio, where there’s a roll-up door that’s helpful for working with vehicles. It’s situated near an auto shop, and the home she shares with her son, where she’s carved out a small space for weaving work for the exhibit.
Cohen was born and raised in Phoenix but headed to California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where she earned her MFA in photography in 2000.
At an undergrad, she planned to study economics. But there was an arts requirement, so Cohen took a photography class. “One thing led to another,” she recalls. Even so, it wasn’t her first experience with taking pictures. “My father photographed a lot. When he died, I got his camera.” It was a 1968 Nikon F. “I use all kinds of cameras now,” she says, “but I don’t shoot much in film anymore.”
Cohen joined the faculty for ASU School of Art in 2017, after spending nearly a decade as an artist-in-residence and head of photography at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art located just outside Detroit. “Cranbrook has a rich tradition of design and craft — that’s where I really started to think about material culture like I never had before.” Among other things, it inspired Cohen to consider ways the textures of textiles might translate into photography.
“I thought a lot about representation and the power images have to make us consider people and how we relate to them,” Cohen says of her Cranbrook years. “There are a lot of ethical issues with photographing people, and there are some interesting power dynamics.”
Today, she’s working on photographs that speak to a lowrider magazine’s decision to stop putting women on its cover and posters for automotive shows that leave out sexualized women. “That’s a huge erasure of women’s participation in that culture,” Cohen says.
So, what explains her fascination with cars and lowrider culture?
It turns out it’s a combination of several factors — including early experiences as the child of immigrants. “My dad came from a family of Syrian descent and grew up as an Arabic-speaking Orthodox Jew in Colombia. My mom came from a more traditional Colombian Catholic family,” she explains.
“I grew up around a lot of people who were negotiating different identities,” Cohen adds. “My parents were big on us being proud of who we are and being different.” She sees that same sensibility in lowrider culture, where people value radical self-expression even as they’re creating a shared community.
There’s another family factor in the mix — the fact that her parents were curious about art and appreciated culture. “They listened to different kinds of music and collected work by local artists,” she recalls. They’d spend time at Scottsdale art walks, and explore the intriguing mix of history and contemporary life during travels to New York, China, and the Soviet Union.
For Cohen, cars reflect the people who drive them. “People put a lot of themselves into their cars, and what they drive says a lot about their values,” she says. “It’s a way to explore several of the things that interest me, including identity and labor.”
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She started going to lowrider shows many years ago, where she was struck by the cars’ ties to the Chicano movement and the history of resistance. “They do something called clowning, which is a way of making yourself stand out so people have to slow down and pay attention,” she says. “It’s an existential gesture, but it’s filled with so much creativity.”
Cohen’s newest body of work explores similar themes, but there’s a twist. She’s passed her 40th birthday and had a child since creating her iconic Trabantimino. Now, she’s adding aging to the mix. “I’m researching a lot of powerful women in middle age and beyond,” Cohen says. “They have a lot of sex appeal and they’re still rocking it.”
She’s working on a new customized car as well and using it as a tool to talk about labor across the Americas. “I’ve just been dabbling in that project, but the Guggenheim Fellowship will really help me develop that work,” she explains. “I haven’t had the opportunity to do a big project in a while, so I’m just over the moon.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly titled Cohen's upcoming exhibition. We deeply regret the error.